Before the Seagulls
Ruby was noticeable in a crowd thanks to her jet-black hair and upright posture. At age 12, people referred to her as the girl with waist-long hair. Her hair had never grown below just a drop down from shoulder-length. Ruby tried, but it didn’t help to argue even when she was able to prove herself right. She looked at herself in a mirror, found her looks and figure nothing more than standard, and tried to see the attraction to her hair. Although she couldn’t see through the fuss, she thought better of complaining and gracefully accepted the special treatment people so willingly offered. It came with a price until she was fully groomed into a lady of social calibre, just the way her friends and family wanted to see her.
There were limits to keeping out of trouble at such an early age. Hair was not at all the foremost interest in her mind. Ruby’s carefully guarded thoughts were deeper and darker. She knew many truths were naturally best left unspoken. For example, she’d be caught dead before she dared say anything about Great Aunt’s incredibly bad breath, or the kindly neighbour’s clammy hands which absolutely made her shudder. There were more tangible problems she was curious about. Like the pistol Aunt Z kept in her purse. Why did she have it?
Mum’s response was never accommodating. “Stop being inquisitive, it’s not safe for you to know so much.” Not safe? What was that supposed to mean? What did Mum know about that pistol? How could it be safe for Aunt Z to be walking about with a pistol in her purse in broad daylight? Ruby fretted wondering what would happen to Aunt Z if she committed a murder. What if she made a mistake and shot somebody in her family? And on and on her imagination flew with no bounds until her father stepped in to distract her with metaphorical explanations.
Unconventionally, Dad took Ruby by the hand one night and led her to a neighbouring field. Then he let her go and asked, “What do you see, Ruby?” “I can’t see anything, Dad, I can barely see you, its pitch-black dark,” she replied. He moved a step back and asked if she could still see him. “Barely, please don’t move around, I’m afraid I’ll lose you in the dark,” she said. Her Dad teased her moving left, right, backwards, and forwards into the shadows until she relaxed and joined in the game. At one point he crouched down so suddenly she no longer knew where he was and called out for him. Once her eyes had acclimatized, she could be heard laughing out loud. “Do you get the impression somethings in life get real, Dad?” asked Ruby. “Well, if they do Ruby, all you have to do is take a good look around like right now and locate the glimmer of a star with your bare eyes,” he said. They gazed silently into the cosmos and chuckled at the sight of shooting stars before solemnly heading back indoors.
The comfort and serenity Ruby found from the stars faded quickly and a few weeks later, the subject of the gun came up in conversation with Raphael, the boy who taught her how to catch tadpoles in the local pond. She was not meant to be out with him just as she was not meant to visit any of her friends or bring any of her friends home. She also was not allowed to greet or speak to anyone outside the presence of her parents. Ruby played by the rules but only when it suited her, and it didn’t when she was with Raphael. She told him about Aunt Z and the pistol in her purse. He told her about his uncle and the gun under his bed. “Do you know why he has it?” she asked. “I think he’s afraid that people who fought in the war may want to come after him,” he said. “Do you know which war?” asked Ruby. Raphael shrugged, there were so many and couldn’t keep up with them “It’s all historical times. Come on, let’s race to the pond.”
Ruby and Raphael were used to having full privacy at the pond but this time there were people armed with rifles and a group of youngsters some distance from them. They naturally ran up to their age group to find out what was going on. A boy their age had drowned in the pond while fetching water, slipped and fell into the deep end. They asked but did not seem to know him. The pond was going to be closed off. Children were no longer allowed to play there.
When Dad returned home from work that night there was a proper discussion about the pond in the living room. Ruby’s parents paused for a minute as she slipped into the room and found herself a quiet corner. Aunt Z, Great Aunt and the neighbour with clammy hands had taken up the three armchairs and her Mum and Dad were sitting on the sofa. They seemed to think that the drowning was not an accident, and some names were thrown around as possibilities, both adults and children. Raphael’s name came up. “No, that’s not true!” Ruby cried out before she could stop herself. The adults turned to look at her briefly then resumed their conversation as though nothing had happened. Ruby clamped her hand over her mouth alarmed by her spontaneous reaction. She kept it there as the adults continued to chat knowing she would get kicked out if she were to speak or openly gasp.
The discussion was most revealing. She discovered her parents had never married because their union complicated the relationship between family members that had fought on opposite sides of a battlefront. Ruby found out that Aunt Z’s husband drank himself stupid then raised his hands against her until one day she had had enough and put a bullet through him using his very own gun. Great Aunt hid her in her kitchen for years and gave her the pistol in her purse in case any other man ever tried to hurt her niece. The neighbour with the clammy hands had purchased the pistol for Great Aunt in the open market which meant it wasn’t licensed. They all agreed that times had changed and soon Aunt Z would have to give up the pistol or get it licensed.
With the pond closed and nowhere to go, Ruby stretched out on the grass and looked up at the sky. It looked so blue and so far, that only infinity could describe it. She had been told many times not to stare at the sun so instead she stared at the clouds. They always formed an image then dispersed and came back together from one thing into something else. A woman appeared with a whip in her hand. A chariot formed under her feet. It was being dragged by dozens of babies clad in their diapers. It made no sense, but it was fun. A pack of wolves appeared behind the woman drawing men on sledges. Her whip rose and fell on the men, the wolves dispersed and vanished with the men into a fluffy, racing cloud. The baby figures disintegrated, and the woman faded like wafting smoke. Any day with the sky was never the same as another and surely for Ruby those clouds were something peaceful to remember as soldiers dropped their guns wearily on her street.
Their arrival had been predicted and it had taken a long time. She looked to see if Raphael was among them. One soldier abruptly sat down on his haunches and dropped his head in his hands. Another sat beside him and watched. A lady in a black dress and a white cotton shawl grabbed the jerrycan of water she had carried for miles and yelled at her daughter to follow with plastic cups, which were filled and handed to the men. The one sitting back took a sip then used his right hand to gently wet the nape of the other, now sitting squarely on the ground still with head in hands.
Ruby roamed the city when Raphael failed to turn up at home. She had never seen so many men in uniform as she had that year. The ones that hadn’t recovered from their wounds were sheltered under plastic sheets against the city hospital. She visited every tent, talked to hundreds, Raphael was not among them.
At her new workplace in the bustling city, project managers discussed how to raise funding for displaced children. Questions were raised behind closed doors as refugees flocked from neighbouring countries. The police were having trouble keeping the peace between settled and refugee communities. Telephone bills skyrocketed as more lines were pirated. The same with electricity lines and bills. Everyone seemed to be stealing something from everyone else. In the meantime, answers were not yet found for the displaced children. Offers for international adoption flooded the city. Papers were signed left, right and centre. Rock bands from all over the world chanted “We are the World” and the project managers joined in. Mrs A looked like she’d lost her mind when she let the orphans in. Their numbers multiplied and they all called her mother.
Ruby shut the office door behind her as though it would keep the noise in her head out. She sat behind her desk and proceeded to go through the mail, slicing open envelopes with the tip of her pen. A letter addressed to her from the Ministry of Health attaching a glossy publication about AIDS. She had been trained to educate the public about this terrible syndrome that was looking up at her from multiple photographs in the form of skin rashes and abscess that chilled her to the bones. Every time she turned a page, she stiffened just a little bit more. Someone knocked at her door and broke the terrible spell. “Come in,” she said.
It was one of her male colleagues. “Hello Ruby, looking like summer itself, hmm and that scent,” he flirted. She knew he was harmless and ignored him. “I have something to show you,” she said solemnly closing the door behind her. “I can’t wait,” he chuckled with a spark in his eye.
She watched his face closely as he leafed through the pages. His eyes grew bigger, his jaw sagged as the images showed him how the skin rash was capable of eating through whole sections of body, decimating limbs with infection. “By God, is this some kind of leprosy?” he asked. “It’s what I fear will happen to people who won’t stop sleeping around,” she replied. “It’s none of your business, keep out of it,” he said lighting up a cigarette and offering her one. She took it. There were no windows in her office, so she opened the door. Another male colleague stopped by, caught sight of the book, picked it up and read a caption out loud. “Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the most common cancers in people living with HIV.” It made her shiver. He shook his head slowly as he leafed through the pages. Gently, he put the book down, took a deep breath and facing Ruby spoke figuratively about not allowing reckless people to drown him in their problems. His words carried her back to the years when she played with Raphael at the pond. She looked at her colleagues and pleaded, “I haven’t found him yet, but Raphael may need blood when I finally find him, please for his sake and mine, don’t do anything stupid. I will need you, many people will need you.” They looked at her in surprise, struggled a little to understand. Then it all came together and hit home revealing how love, war, blood, and contagion was of human making and ready to tear down their part of town. They sent out project proposals. They found Raphael. They did what they could. No matter how hard they tried they couldn’t keep up. Eventually, nothing could charm them into staying alive.
On her nightstand, Ruby handcrafted three decorative, match-sized gift boxes. She sat on the edge of her bed brushing her hair, strand by strand. She called out their names one by one in a song she had made up. “Raphael, my Prince gave love to touch my hair; Petros gave blood to keep love alive; Sam held the torch to keep out the darkness, all three now gone, my heart ablaze with their flames, will they ever be reborn?” She reached into her drawers found a pair of scissors, clipped tiny lockets from her hair and fit them in each gift box to thank the men for the sweet, brave and kind memories they had given her. She tied the boxes together with a thick red ribbon, vowed to fill lonely moments with their warm memories, and completed her private goodbye ritual.
The guns had cleared. Great Aunt, Aunt Z and her Dad were also all in heaven. There were no problems left, just experiences, very special ones.
It was difficult. A difficult relationship. Also, a difficult venue and a difficult situation. Ruby was dehydrated. A banging headache threatened to sicken her to the gut. She found a bench and sat down, lips parched, feeling lightheaded. She took a deep breath listening to the tingle in her ears of blood draining from her head. “Breathe, keep breathing,” she told herself expecting relief which arrived when her ears started ringing, and the saliva forming once again underneath her burning tongue. She took deeper breaths with her eyes shut. The evening air cooled and filled her lungs. “Better than a fresh glass of water,” she told herself. A breeze kicked up the leaves, a gentle drizzle covered her head and soon she was licking tiny raindrops that had gathered on the roof of her lips. Ready to get back on her feet, Ruby opened her eyes.
Her mobile phone rang. It was her mother. They had just spent the afternoon together but perhaps she didn’t remember. “Hello Mum.”
“Oh Ruby, I was wondering if I would catch you. Am I disturbing you?”
“No, Mum, did you need something?”
“Oh I just wanted to know how you are getting along, that’s all.”
“I’m doing fine, Mum, we spent the afternoon together, remember?”
“Ah, yes, that was yesterday, wasn’t it?”
“It was today Mum; I’ve only just left.”
“I’m sure you dreamed that up Ruby, we haven’t spoken today.”
Ruby needed to spare herself from another headache. “Well, maybe I’m the one mixing things up then, never mind, how are you today, Mum?”
“Fit as a fiddle, had rice pudding for breakfast and tea in the afternoon. Now getting ready for bed. How about you?”
“I had a toasted sandwich for lunch and we had a lovely tea, didn’t we Mum.”
“We certainly did, and I’m going to bed now.”
“That’s brilliant, good night, Mum.”
It was easier on the phone, so much easier. And it was most difficult to see her go, so difficult.
Finally, home, Ruby turned on the kettle, jumped into the shower and stayed until she felt that all her unwanted layers had been washed down the drain. The steam had filled up the room, her ringing ears warned her she needed air. She turned off the tap and mechanically got into her bathrobe. She grabbed a clean hand towel from the rack and with one quick movement wrapped it around her wet head. Ruby charged out of the bathroom and flopped into bed dressed in a bathrobe. The ceiling was spinning up above her. The tingling in her ears roared like the sea. “Breathe, breathe,” she told herself and breathed attentively until the dizzy spell subsided. Then she took a sip of water from the bottle at her bedside and was out like a light.
That night she dreamt it was dark and cold in the shadows. Two little boys skipped ahead of her playfully. She noticed they were in a bog and followed them instinctively. Vine-looking plants sprouted up from where the children’s feet had landed. They grew very fast and lurched towards her ankles as she stepped over them. One of the boys stopped to watch but alarmed the vines would get him she screamed at him to run and wouldn’t let him ponder. The faster the boys ran the faster the vines lurched for Ruby’s ankles until finally they all came out of the shadows into the sun. It glistened magnificently at the same time as the sunrays fell on Ruby’s face prompting her eyes to open.
It felt like another life. The sky looked white, cold and indifferent. Seagulls squealed like hungry fat puppies. “Coffee please,” she asked and watched as the waitress sloshed the dark liquid beyond the cup and onto the saucer. An apologetic smile flashed before she ran off to the next customer. Ruby lifted her cup and watched it drip dry before she rested it against her lips. Her big burly husband shook the table as he plonked into the seat opposite hers. “Coffee, please,” he asked and was served by the same waitress. This time the hot liquid spread beyond the cup, the saucer and all over the white tabletop. A chuckle resounded, a new saucer appeared, and the mess was cleaned up in a second. Ruby reached out for her husband’s fresh white napkin and placed it onto her saucer. Her cup stopped dripping and finally she could drink her coffee in peace. They were on holiday by the sea near Norwich. They left the hotel and headed for the seafront. On their way they stopped at a bus stop to admire a protected Bansky spray painting on a brick wall. Ruby took a photograph, which she printed when they returned to the hotel. She stuck a first-class stamp on the back, wrote the words towards the light and handed it in at the post office.
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Nightengale Jennings: I was named Chuchu at birth, in 1968, a time when outer space was politically and scientifically significant. My parents named me Venus the year I was admitted to an English nursery school in Addis Ababa. Everyone was surprised to discover I already spoke fluent English, which I had picked up from TV and my older English-speaking siblings. At school, I had access to English language children’s books, unfortunately not in Amharic. I started keeping a diary in primary school, and wrote short stories and poetry in high school, primarily in English and in Amharic. I destroyed everything I wrote in fear of being incriminated in an uncertain society that suffered civil war and famine. I have written professionally for international organizations, and love writing both fiction and poetry. *Nightingale is my pen name, which I adopted from the bird and for the quality of the song.
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