Melody

Ahdaf Soueif

The scent of jasmine fills the air. It has been filling the air every night for the last month, I guess. Which is how you know the season is changing in this country. In this country the bougainvillaea blooms against our walls and windows all the year round. The lizards dart out from under the stones and back in again. The mosquitoes buzz outside the netting and the pool-boy can be seen tending the pool every morning from eight to ten. We’re not allowed to use the pool; women, I mean. It’s only for the kids – and the men of course. They can use anything. And they do. Use anything I mean. And I don’t get to smell the jasmine that much either. You can only really smell it at night and I don’t go out at night that much because of Wayne. Not that there’s anywhere to go, you understand. Only shopping or visiting on the compound. But even that I don’t get to do much of. Wayne sleeps at eight. If he doesn’t get his twelve hours he’s a real grouch all of the next day. And he has to wake up at half-past seven every morning to catch the school bus. Now that’s one thing I could never understand: why was that child never sent to school? She just kept her with her all the time. When we first came to this compound six months ago they were the first people I saw. The first residents, that is. You don’t count the maintenance people and the garden-boys. We moved in on a Friday afternoon and the first thing we did was go right out again and drive up and down the road and I remember we said how convenient to have a grocer’s, a newsagent, a flower-shop and a hospital right on our doorstep practically. Not that any of them looked like they were up to much but still they’d have to be better than nothing. And on the Saturday morning, as Wayne and I came back from the grocery store (Rich had gone to work, of course – that’s my husband) we saw a woman and child standing by the pool. The woman smiled, and Wayne ran over. I followed. Mind you, I thought she looked a bit tacky from the start. Her hair was a dark bronze, obviously dyed, and you could see the roots where it was growing out. She had quite a bit of eye makeup on and her skirt was shorter than you normally see around here. She hadn’t even bothered with an abaya which is normally OK on a compound but not with such a short skirt. The kid was very pretty though and little Wayne fell for her straight away. She was a true blonde with fabulous natural curls. Her face was heart-shaped with a small retroussé nose and big blue eyes and she had drawn one of her mother’s veils over her like a miniature abaya. It turned out she was only a couple of months older than Wayne. But she was much more self-conscious, self-possessed. Being a girl, I guess. Girls grow up quicker than boys. Well, Ingie, that was her name, the woman’s I mean, chatted away – although you couldn’t really call it chatting since her English is appalling – but she told me a bit about the compound and I asked where her kid went to school because I had to decide on a school for Waynie and she said Melody didn’t go to school. She said she had another baby, Murat, who was asleep upstairs just then, and she was keeping them together and teaching Melody at home how to read and write. I thought straight away that that was wrong, although, of course, it wasn’t for me to say, but the kid couldn’t speak a word of English. I mean she was very pretty and everything and in point of fact Wayne was standing there just staring at her all through our conversation. He was smitten. I think he just fell in love. Well, later that day when Wayne dropped his gun into the pool and I couldn’t reach it and he’s crying his head off, Ingie appears at her window and lowers a broomstick, yelling: ‘Try this, try this.’ So we got the gun out of the water and went upstairs to give her back her broomstick and Wayne just would not leave; he had to stay and play with Melody. I’ve never understood what the attraction was, quite frankly. She never played his kind of game. All she’d do was play with dolls and dress and undress them and talk to them – in Turkish. While he watched. And once I went to collect him and found them both sitting around a tub of water on the bathroom floor with bare feet and wet clothes, ‘washing’ all the dolls clothes. And Ingie just laughs and says: ‘It is so hot.’ Ingie’s main thing is laughing. Laughing and clothes and makeup and dancing. And cooking. When we first moved in, she would come round, maybe twice a week, each time with some ‘little thing’ she had made: pastry, apple tart, pizza, whatever. All of them things that take a lot of making. And little Melody was helping her. She also helped her, she said, make all those tiny doll’s clothes for Barbie. I said, ‘But you can buy them at Toyland for nothing,’ and she laughed and shrugged and said: ‘But I like.’ And I guess she likes cooking three-course meals and a dessert for her husband every night and waiting on him too, no doubt. The way these Moslem women treat their husbands just makes me ill. They actually want to be slaves. Mind you, of course, that’s probably how she got him in the first place. I thought it was bit odd when I saw him: a great, big, tall man and obviously a lot older than her. In his fifties maybe. And, laughing, she tells me that they (Ingie, Melody and Murat) are his second family. I pretend to be surprised but in point of fact Elaine had already told me (Elaine is my Scots friend – she’s been here for almost four years and she knows everything), Elaine had told me he used to be married to an American woman and he’d lived in Denver for twenty years. They had two boys and he looked after them and did everything else as well. The wife worked and she had like a strong personality and naturally she wouldn’t do anything in the house. I have a lot of sympathy with that. I mean Housework and me are not the best of friends. I’d rather read a book. I do it here though. Housework, I mean. Since I’m not working and Rich is. But I don’t like it. Anyway. Ingie’s husband (he wasn’t her husband yet at that point of course) he had enough one day so he packed up and went home and got himself a young Turkish wife who would do absolutely everything for him and then he brought her to this country where he could virtually lock her up while he made loads of money. We don’t even know if he ever divorced his first wife. Ingie didn’t say any of this of course. Just said he was a genius and loved his work and could fix any machine in the world and that his first wife ‘is a very bad girl’ and that he is ‘very happy, very joyful man’. And indeed, their Betamaxes are there to prove it. Him dancing in front of friends and family at Melody’s third birthday. A film of him filming Melody and a pregnant Ingie romping in the woods on a holiday in Vermont. All very joyful. Ingie too is ‘very joyful person’. When you visit her she always has some tape on – loud. Disco, rock, Oriental music, whatever. And one of Melody’s favourite games is to sit Wayne down, get her mother to put on some of that wailing, banging stuff, grab a scarf and start dancing for him. And she can dance. Arms and legs twirling. Neck side to side. Leaning backwards. The lot. And Wayne, who normally can’t sit still for a minute, sits transfixed, watching this little blonde who cannot speak a word that means anything to him strutting and flirting about with a veil. I wasn’t even sure this friendship was particularly good for him. But the tears and the tantrums that we had if I tried to stop him from going over – it was just easier to let him go. Once she was supposed to be coming to our apartment to play with him and she didn’t show. He just sat and waited. He wasn’t even four yet but he waited for her for over two hours and then he made me take him over to their apartment and when they weren’t there he sat down on the doorstep and wept. This whole compound, as far as he was concerned, was ‘where Melody lives’. Melody didn’t care as much as he did, I think. But then she had a little brother and Waynie has no one. Well, he has three brothers but they are much older and they’re back in Vancouver. In point of fact we, too, are a second family. Rich was married for fifteen years. I don’t really know that much about his first wife – except he pays her a lot of alimony which is part of the reason why we’re here. But he had three sons and he never wanted to have Wayne. Wayne was the result of a deal I made with Rich. When he got the offer of this job and he really wanted to take it, I said: ‘OK. You give me what I want and you can have what you want.’ I mean, not every woman would agree to be buried alive in a place like this, would she? So he signed the contract and we bought the jeep and set off overland and while we were crossing France I got myself pregnant. He made some jokes about making sure it was a girl, but after Wayne came he really chickened out and went and got himself a vasectomy so I couldn’t nag him for another kid. Ingie said her husband was waiting for their third. Always talking about it. But Elaine said Ingie had told her she was on the Pill. She didn’t want to get pregnant because some fortune-teller back home had said that she would have three children and one would break her heart. So she figured if she only had two, that would somehow invalidate the whole prophecy. I don’t know about all that. I mean, I don’t believe in fortune-tellers myself but sometimes you hear stories of things they’ve said. Well, anyway, Ingie’s husband was on at her to have a third and every month he waited to see if she had conceived and meanwhile she’s secretly on the Pill and hiding the strip among Melody’s pants and vests and terrified that he should find out. That’s what these Moslem men are like: they can never have enough children. Mostly though, they want boys. But this one wanted another girl. I asked Ingie how come he wanted a girl and she said he thought girls were more ‘tender and loving’ than boys. Besides, a boy would always end up ‘belonging’ to his wife while a girl was: ‘her father’s daughter forever. But,’ she added, ‘of course we believe everything that God bring is good.’ Of course.

This was the kind of conversation you had with Ingie. She also knew everything about everything that happened, or – as was more often the case – that almost happened: the children almost snatched, the near-rapes, the Filipinos almost executed but deported instead, the Germans who went mad. For all her tartiness, though, she was a good mum. They were both good parents and you always found them in Kiddiworld on the last Thursday of the month – Western Family Day – and there would be this massive grey-haired Turk, whizzing down the lighthouse slide with little Melody held tight on what Wayne called his ‘lamp’ while Ingie waved at them, clutching Murat to her breast and laughing.

Now, of course, you don’t see them there any more. You don’t see them anywhere, really. Even though they’re still around. Well, nobody wants to see much of them to tell the truth. I mean, Elaine always said he was a bit weird but I never knew how weird until I heard all that stuff about the camera. But of course I didn’t know that until later. When it happened I hadn’t seen Ingie for a while. I’d actually stopped going round that much. I still took Wayne there. But I’d leave him then go and collect him. That night, though, I went. I had to. And the air in the compound was, as I said, not just full of the scent of jasmine, but literally heavy with it. It was eight o’clock and the older children were still out. Climbing the railings by the pool, running between the bushes, whispering, then a burst of laughter. I had to go. I knew that a lot of people had gone the night before and I’d watched people coming and going all morning and all afternoon. Well, that’s maybe the Moslem way. But we usually just send a card. Or we go to the funeral. But I decided I’d better go or it would maybe look unfriendly. So I waited till I’d put Wayne to bed and I told Rich and I went out and it just hit me; how pleasant the night air was and how fragrant. I walked slowly because I had no idea what I should do or say once I got there and then I looked up at their windows and they were all lit up and the curtains wide open. I walked up the stairs and from outside the door I could hear the sound of the Koran being chanted so I knocked and someone let me in and to the left were maybe twenty men sitting in a circle around the cassette-player, silent. Screened from them, round a corner, huddled on the floor, a veiled woman, all in black, listened too. I stood uncertain of what to do, then the woman got to her feet and it was Ingie. She opened the door to the inner bit of the apartment, let me in and closed the door behind us. She sat down on a sofa and I sat on a chair close to her. The apartment was full of women. Women and babies. Women sitting. Women making coffee. Women preparing food for the men outside. One woman was doing the dishes. Another was folding up some dry washing. All the women were in black. But the babies were bright spots of colour. Murat – in red dungarees and a red and white shirt – hung onto his mother’s knees for a moment and then propelled himself towards his sister’s shiny blue tricycle. Fell, cried, was picked up and dandled by one of the women. I finally looked full at Ingie. I was all ready to find that she had aged overnight. But she hadn’t. She seemed, if anything, younger. She had lost a lot of weight. I don’t know how she’d managed it in only twenty-three hours but she had and she looked slight and frail in her long black skirt and her black T-shirt. No make-up, her hair pulled back and knotted with a rubber band, black circles around her eyes. Her skin – not just the skin of her face but of her arms, hands, feet, all you could see of her – had grown finer: almost transparent. And she had lost her poise. Her movements were slow and awkward: adolescent. When she sat, her feet turned inward, towards each other, like a shy schoolgirl or a twisted doll. Her eyes were red and seeing me look she pointed at them and whispered: ‘I have no tears.’ She also had no voice. Even her whisper had to be forced out. Every once in a while she would convulse in what looked like the prelude to a fit of weeping but then nothing would happen and she would just sit quiet again with a hand on each of her knees and her feet turned inward. Staring at her fingers she whispered: ‘People live fifty years. Seventy Ninety, even. She lived fifty months.’ The woman sitting next to her on the sofa – a fat Egyptian who was perspiring so much you couldn’t tell the sweat from the tears – pointed at the ceiling then spread her hands, palms upward. Ingie whispered: ‘He give her to me. Why He take her away? Why?’ The woman reached over and patted the hand resting on the knee closer to her and said: ‘You are Moslem.’ Ingie’s voice rattled as she struggled to break out of her whisper: ‘I am Moslem. But she was my daughter.’ Then she went into one of her brief, dry-eyed convulsions. The woman patted her hand again then turned and spoke in Arabic to her own daughter hulking in black lace behind her. Ingie reached under a cushion and took out a pack of blue Silk Cut. Three Turkish women sprang up to get her an ashtray. After two puffs and a whole lot of coughing she stubbed it out. Her white arms – no bracelets, no rings other than her gold wedding-band – moved in dramatic gestures: ‘I cannot believe. From yesterday I am thinking: she will come from here – and she will run from there. I see her run. I still hear her cry “Mama.” A minute. All it is. One minute. I do it. I do it.’ She hit her breast. The Turkish woman Elaine says is her best friend stepped in from the kitchen and stood for a minute watching her. The Egyptian woman grabbed her hand and said: ‘But what happen? How it happen yesterday?’

‘Yesterday,’ Ingie whispers like a machine, a robot with batteries running low, ‘yesterday we are at home all day. The children are restless. I take them to the Shopping Mall. My husband so tired, he no go. I say OK we walk. We take my friend downstairs and her baby. We go. We make the tour. We give the children ice-cream. We come back. Outside, I remember, no more cérélac for Murat. I say to my friend, “You keep the children,” I run across the road for cérélac.’ She looks around. ‘I do not want to take Melody. She always want chocolates and sweets and I think it is bad for her. My friend say “OK.” I cross. Then I hear Melody: “Mama!” I turn and she is run after me and the car come so fast ...’ Silence. She shakes her head. ‘I am watching. He hit her then the car carry her long down the road then she fall and start to go over and over. Everyone – they are running and the man from Jasmine flower-shop he carry her and we run to hospital – but she is die.’ Her hands fall on her knees and she looks around. Looks at me. Her eyes have a questioning, doubting look in them, as though one of us might tell her she is wrong and Melody is not ‘die’. The woman next to her murmurs in Arabic and two of the Turkish ladies – one with braids, round spectacles and a fat baby and the other very classy with perfect fingernails and one of those serpent rings that cover a whole finger have started to cry into some pink kleenex. Ingie is rocking gently to and fro on the sofa while Murat leans against her legs and chews on a cucumber wedge. Melody’s toys fill the room and a fat Encyclopedia of Home Medicine lies on a desk in the corner.

A little later, when I leave, I linger in the garden. I don’t really want to go home just yet and Rich is looking after Wayne for once so I go to Elaine’s. I can’t stay with her very long because it’s evening and Mike – her husband – is there but I tell her about the scene at Ingie’s and she says: ‘He never goes out weekends. He works all week and sleeps all weekend. Kids get restless.’ But, as I say, I did see him in Kiddiworld.

When I left Elaine I decided to go across the road and buy some flowers: a surprise for Rich because I don’t often do that kind of thing – but just to say ‘thank you for looking after Wayne.’

I cross the road. There are no marks on the surface, no bent lamp-posts, no police cordon. Nothing to say that something out of the ordinary happened here last night.

The flower-man, a greasy Lebanese who I’ve never liked, said: ‘You have seen what happened last night?’

‘The child?’

‘Ah!’ he said. ‘I saw it all. Nobody had as good a view as me.’

I chose five red roses and he started to strip them of leaves and thorns.

‘I am standing at the door here. I see the lady cross. I know her. Often I see her. Always with the children. This time I see her cross the road and the other lady wait with the children. Then, I see the child, the little girl: she calls – and runs. The mother turns and the car just BOOM’ – he slams a fist into the open palm of his other hand – ‘just BOOM and then carries her off: twenty-four metres. The mother is on the island in the middle of the road. Her arms are stretched out. But the screaming is from the brakes of the car.’ He lays the roses carefully on a sheet of cellophane and bends to pick out some ferns to put with them.

‘Me, I have started to run. The car drops her and she rolls over and over and she rolls into my arms like that. Blood is everywhere. I lift her. The head falls back and the eyes are all the way up so you can only see the white. But she is breathing. I hold her head against my chest and I run and run very fast to the hospital. The head, it is spurting blood at me – in pulses. Today, you know, I have asked my friend, the doctor – he plays chess with me – I have asked him how much blood is a child, just four, having in her body? He says maybe four litres. Well. I tell you. It was four litres on me and I don’t know how much on the road. I did not even notice though, truly. I carried her to the hospital but she was dead. It was only later, when I have come back here, I start to smell a terrible smell. I look down and I am covered with blood.’ He wrapped some aluminium foil carefully round the stems of the flowers to keep them moist.

I said: ‘I heard her father rushed out and tried to kill the driver?’

‘Ah! But they stopped him. What good would it do? He was speeding, yes. But they all speed and he was not expecting a child to run into the middle of the road at ten o’clock at night. He is in prison now and he will pay compensation, you know: blood money.’ He tied a white ribbon round the cellophane-wrapped bouquet.

‘He came down this morning with a video-camera, the father. He was taking a film of the road. I went out to see and he made interview with me. He is wanting me to do exactly like what happened. Here the car hit her, like this. Here, I pick her up, like this. I run like this. He took a whole film. Everything. Poor man.’

I gave him his money and went home with the roses. I put them in a vase and told Rich all about it but he had gotten into some book and I don’t think he really wanted to hear. Elaine did, though. And I went to see her next morning as soon as I had put Waynie on the school bus. But all the while I was talking I had a feeling she was keeping something up her sleeve and sure enough when I’d finished she said: ‘And do you know what he did in the afternoon, the father? He went down to the morgue, where they were going to wash the poor child and lay her out, and he filmed the whole thing.’

‘But how could they let him?’

‘They said the poor man was so crazed with grief it was better to let him do whatever he wanted. Besides, they’re afraid of him; he’s a big guy – and violent. And do you know what he did in the evening after you’d left and all the others had gone and only Ingie’s best friend was there?’

Elaine leaned forward with her arms on her knees.

‘He sat Ingie down and he made her watch both his films: the one of the road and the one in the morgue. And then he made her watch the film of Melody’s last birthday. He said what happened is her fault and she has to be made to feel it.’

Well. That’s weird. Weird enough for me anyway. They also say he wants her to get pregnant immediately and give him another daughter. And she’s not allowed to take little Murat out at all because he can’t trust her to look after him.

They kept Melody in the morgue for a week while they got her an exit visa and he got leave from his work and then they all flew to Turkey to bury her in their home town. Elaine thinks that’s morbid but I kind of understand they wouldn’t want to leave the kid here on her own when they finally go away. They had a bad time of it though because it was that freak five days when all of Turkey and Jordan were covered in snow and the drive from the airport to their home town was ten hours. Still, I guess that was better than if it had been sweltering hot. Anyway. He blamed her to everybody back home and she wanted to stay on with her mother for a bit but he brought her back because he wasn’t going to leave little Murat in her care and because she had to get pregnant. And now they’re here and it’s all a bit spooky. No one quite knows how to talk to them so we avoid them as much as we can. Everyone honestly thinks they ought to go away. But of course he’s only done four years and he needs to do one more to qualify for the five-year bonus. We all understand that. But we don’t understand her. How can she ever cross that road without thinking of Melody? How can she walk in the gardens? Live in the apartment?

The night I went to see her she suddenly leaned towards me and said: ‘She was – ’then she turned to the Turkish lady with the spectacles and asked something which appeared to be quite urgent. The Turkish lady looked serious and said:

‘Good. Not selfish.’

‘Yes,’ said Ingie to me very earnestly. ‘She was a good child. Not selfish. A good child.’

‘I am so sorry,’ I said. ‘So sorry.’

She stared at the carpet.

‘She was my daughter. Now my house is empty.’

I patted her knee – the one the Egyptian woman wasn’t patting.

‘You have Murat.’

I left soon after that. Some women were leaving. Others were coming in. I didn’t know it but Ingie’s husband was fixing up his video shows. As I stepped out of the building the air seemed fresher and the scent of the jasmine still more strong. The children were still climbing the railings by the pool, buzzing with talk and I remember wondering how I was going to break the news to Waynie?