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Olivia Gunning

Cat in mid-airNabil Azoufi

She came in thinking I couldn’t see. Cream clothes, clean and loose. Makeup wasn’t bad – bronze cheeks, shiny lips, etc. And that lovely freckly nose needed nothing, but her left eye was plump, shaded. Left eye clouted with left hand. That’s how I remember it.

There was one left-handed person around. Fuckwit who complained his knife was on the right like a rude customer.

We’re not all right-handed.

Bachir left following the slipped-on glove of darkness. After tides of tussles, muffled sobs, sudden bumps. I lay watching glow-in-the-dark stars, watching the glow run out. I didn’t want it to stop, that last push of light. Yet it went, as light always will. Then boom, the front door. Bachir gone.

I heard Mum run water in her bathroom. I knew by the way she moved around, closing cupboards, soft and precise as a switch, by the creak of her slim frame lifted into bed, that she was calm. Her breaths longer, slower, hectic sleep whistling through narrow nostrils. That nose, so fine that she’d whistle during sleep.

Downside of a delicate nose.

* * *

I rose early with Donald and Jack, my new kittens. Minuscule beings that bleated in and out of the night for their vanished brood. Mum brought them home after kids threw them through her open window at the traffic lights. Thump, clump. They landed, whimper and shiver, on the passenger seat.

Donald was bright blue, Jack was bright orange. Having been coated with fluorescent spray paint, they were flung like luminous bouncy balls.

Bachir said you have to be totally retarded to leave your car window open because people will always steal stuff.

This wasn’t theft but almost a gift, albeit unintentional. I’d dreamt of pets, and there they were like awful wind-up toys, squirming and squealing in their own horror. Fluorescent orphan twins.

* * *

Because I was five, I got my own breakfast. Cornflakes were on the table, and I could reach the milk. When the alarm shrieked it meant I forgot to close the fridge. I knew what to do.

I liked breakfast with Mum but that day she got up late, sore eye partially camouflaged. She carried that smile she saved for us, that existed no matter what nor who. Undeterrable.

Mum brought her silver engraved teapot and pretty tea glass. She poured. There was steam everywhere and I said Nee-Nah-Nee-Nah. A fire fighter. I’d always do that when I saw stream or smoke. Mum laughed, head bent, left fingers over left eye. My little fireman. She stretched her palm out, and I clasped a finger. I picked up dry cornflakes, lay them in her hand, laughing. Eat, Mummy!

* * *

Sometimes we’d go to Daddy’s grave. Not often, because of the long, grubby drive along the motorway, through the slums. Lots of accidents, because moronic idiots can’t fucking drive. They change lanes without looking or indicating. God only knows why the hell they’ve got rear-view mirrors.

I didn’t mind the drive. Ladies in headscarves leaned out from windows, hanging washing against ashen, fume-smeared walls. Sometimes they dropped rubbish bags out and you could watch the five-floor fall.

The enormous cemetery was all headstones with numbers, motionless as the mosque we never entered.

Let’s just stay outside.

At Daddy’s grave, Mum and I traced fingers along his name, right to left. We’d sound the letters.

A – L – I.

Ain. Lam.Ya.

علي‎

Afterwards, we’d have scrambled eggs because Daddy made them for us the day he died. I loved eggs. Sometimes, Mum got down the chocolate box. We studied the label and chose one, then two, then three.

* * *

Donald and Jack’s wailing seemed louder after dark when the clang of building and car horns stopped. I’d wake at night to sit with them, dropping milk into their mouths. I watched how close they huddled, how when one moved, the other followed so that they were always, always touching. They didn’t realize they were two separate beings, that one was orange, the other blue. I put warm hands around them because of survival being so tentative.

* * *

Mum loved her big brother Zak’s visits. They spent their time laughing hysterically and drinking wine. He was always the same: jokey, measured, adult. He once told Mum that scientists know which factors make it more likely for people to fall in love, but there’s still much to discover. That’s why, sometimes, you can’t for the fucking life of you understand why fantastic people fall for totally useless individuals.

Bachir didn’t like Zak. Once, Bachir was drinking Red Bull on the balcony while Mum was washing up. Bachir shouted, I wouldn’t be surprised to find you two screwing on the sofa.

* * *

Mum carried me to playschool, crossing six perilous lanes of traffic. I was too slow to dodge, too small to be visible.

She asked: Is Bachir nice?

Not really. Smells smoky, a bit mouldy. It’s nice when he brings chocolate eggs with toys.

If you think Bachir isn’t nice, he could stop coming over.

I thought about it while in Mum’s arms, pressed against her gentle, cream clothes. A plane flew low. I wondered if was headed to Paris, where Daddy studied. Where, when I was tiny, they took me on a holiday I can’t remember.

Tell me if you’d rather Bachir didn’t visit.

I recalled Bachir bringing flowers, hugging Mum from behind. He’d take her out, she smiling and lovely, he a hairy cartoon bear. I’d stare from the balcony, holding the babysitter’s hand, as Mum climbed onto his motorbike. Watched them tight together on the saddle, roaring away. I couldn’t decide if the motor sounded angry or free.

I hate him.

* * *

Ramadan. Mum didn’t fast, but she liked being on the balcony when mosques called dusk prayers. When the cacophony vanished with the light. In leafy districts, you could hear the city’s surviving birds singing sleep-time, but not in our area. Our block rose alongside a part-bulldozed, part-abandoned shanty town, thin families gripping at the remains. We were the middle-class stealing onto the land of the wanting.

The crash of both construction and demolition had gone. As though the saturating clamour had stood up, stoically walked itself into a black hole.

Donald slept. Jack hunted his brother’s warmth. Breaths were sparse.

Everyone in Casablanca talked of God, but not Mum. I asked anyway. I asked if God looked after people. She paused, looking past stationary bulldozers into gradients of evening light.

I’m uncertain. Some believe that everything goes back to God after death.

I sat in the crook of her knees, head in the curve of her throat.

Mummy, if you go to God, will they let me come with you?

Olivia Gunning’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Crack the Spine, Five on the Fifth, and STORGY, among others. 

As a journalist, Olivia has written for Fodor's Travel Guide, The National, Elle Decoration as well as several travel supplements. She left her native London years and years and years ago to write, teach, and live in Casablanca, Morocco. 

Twitter: @olivegunning
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