There were things Nayeema knew about ears. They were wondrous. They were as unique to an individual as a fingerprint. But the fingerprint was inert whereas the ear had the capacity to change through a person’s life. Very incredible that the showy fingerprint was enthusiastically celebrated while the humble ear quietly mapped life’s victories and travails.
Nayeema’s own father’s ears had steadily thickened at the top like warm bread dough rising. Just before his death she had started to notice a sprouting of grey hairs from his concha and tragus, at the entrance of the ear canal. Her mother, Soraya, had earlobes that had lost their elasticity over time and drooped terribly as her heavy gold-hooped earrings had caused the punctured hole in her lobe to expand to the size of a watermelon seed.
The individualism of the ear was something to behold, a real wow-baby. What made Nayeema breathless though, was the act of piercing the earlobe: the point of puncture, the breaking of flesh, the prick of the skin, and the subtle popping sound made by the needle as it journeyed through the fat of the lobe. She had watched as her younger cousin Dalia had had her ears pierced. Little Dalia was no more than two years of age when the needle went through her tiny unsuspecting earlobe. Her pain-pitched well of shrieks and tears lasted for ten minutes. A hurricane of emotion ripped through Nayeema, her skin ached and temples thrummed. Hot adrenaline charged through her body like a windstorm, like the Khamaseen at its torrid peak.
There was no doubt in Nayeema’s mind. She loved to pierce. On the edge of pleasure and pain, which came with the puncturing of the ear, she felt a pulse of joy in the precise moment where metal united with flesh. There was no longer needle, ear and hand but one wondrous continuum of energy that directly connected her, as the piercer, to the recipient and to that moment.
Then there were the rituals, bound to hygiene and to flair, which Nayeema found irresistible. The preparation of the ear, the sterilisation of the needle, the dabble of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, the positioning of the cork behind the ear to provide stability, and perhaps the most celebratory of all the rituals, the dot to mark the placement of the piercing. Few things in life could be more wow than a precise piercing.
And yet here she was in this village-town of Burraboo. In the white glare of the morning, Nayeema squinted down Hungerford Place and cursed. She cursed the flies for using her face as a diving board and her arms as a trampoline. Go to the hell. Stupid bugger-off flies. Get lost. She cursed Fawzy for his big dreams and this deathly quiet village-town that he’d chosen for his union of science and commerce. Oh, he was a big man of science, her Professeur.
The air was as sticky as halva, as thick as toffee. Light rippled in a haze above a cluster of banksia bushes. Her thighs were already clammy beneath her pencil skirt, and the scent of her favourite cologne, ‘Green Apple’ by Max Factor, sluiced off her body. She patted her head. Damp curls were forming defiantly above her forehead and she knew that in twenty minutes these damp curls would sprout into an unkempt frizz that would cover her entire head like a bloated, furry slug. Her hair was a madman and every day was full moon.
So. This was it. This was her home for the next two miserable years. Burraboo. She let the strange word flit around her mouth. Burraboo, where men carried full bushy beards and refused to wear blazers, where women let their grey hairs grow unchallenged through the gates of middle age. Very incredible, very wow, that so many women had never considered henna.
Their friends in Sydney had all laughed at their sudden decision to move to Burraboo. ‘Eh? Burraboo? What is a Burraboo?’ they’d teased. The men had hooted and slapped Fawzy’s back and took turns shouting various mispronunciations of Burraboo. Nabil suggested that it sounded like a type of fish, best eaten fried.
Her chest tightened as she tried not to think of their friends in Sydney, in the Paprika Triangle where she and Fawzy had lived for the past three years, where people and noise and dancing and music and naughty children decorated every corner. She tried not to think about her older brothers and their despicable scramble for wealth after the death of their parents, or her escape from their heartless greed to this distant continent, Australia. Most of all, she tried not to think about the prick and prickle that seared from her birthmark.
Her birthmark. How she wanted to scratch it, feel her skin savaged underneath her fingernails. This no good shit prick and prickle should get lost. Go to the hell. Sitting below her collarbone, her birthmark sprawled cruelly over her right breast like a puddle of spilt soup. The wretched pomegranate stain was a magnet for the human eye, a distraction during conversations with strangers; it was the reason she avoided wearing sharply plunging V-shaped tops, so wow-baby, which exposed the soft, fleshy crescent of breast. All the girls her age paraded their crescents.
During episodes like this, the surface of her skin formed tiny bumps like rice pudding; worse, her right nipple became as hard as a lemon pip.
Little duck, ‘ya butta,’ said Fawzy. ‘Let me cover your birthmark with gauze,’ he had suggested this morning. ‘You’ll be scratching it all day, I know you will.’
She had refused the gauze. El professeur’s face had puckered with concern in all the right places but his voice shimmered with happiness.
Nothing could puncture his good mood since they’d arrived in this stupid bugger-off town of Burraboo. Unbelievable! How his bliss seemed to seep out of his very pores to give his skin an unexpected succulence. How he now pressed his lips together in such a deliberate, maddening way that dimples suddenly kissed his cheeks. Leaving Sydney and coming to Burraboo had ignited her husband like a sparkler that had just been lit: dazzling and fun, sure; but crazy too, like someone who had eaten too many eggplants and gone slightly mad. Like eggplant indigestion, she hoped that this, too, would pass, together with the little scraps of Goethe that he liked to recite, first in Arabic, then in English. ‘We must do. Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do,’ he solemnly repeated.
Applying. Doing. Hard work. Oh, her Professeur had plenty to say about the virtues of hard work. Yet, with this move to Burraboo, her own perfectly formed dream of opening a piercing parlour, her very vision of future happiness, was slipping into the crease of the horizon. The piercing of ears was delicate work, important work. She knew that a pierced ear could transform a face: there was a kind of radiance from the sparkle of an earring that could transfigure the very bone structure of a woman, enabling her to transcend the gifts accorded to her face at birth.
Nayeema felt a shiver of pleasure shoot down her neck as she gently scratched her scapha, that exquisite part of the ear that sat furrowed beneath her helix, the curved exterior ridge. She felt an extra element of pleasure when she applied the correct anatomical names to the ear, and in doing so, gave the ear the respect it deserved. She discovered early on that ears were one of the few conversations that she and Fawzy could keep returning to with equal excitement.
After several feverish scratches of her birthmark, she reached the intersection of Hungerford Place with Main Road. The steep elevation offered a clear view of the long stretch of road as it gently descended towards the town centre. The downhill walk into town was not too bad but the return trip was a sharp, uphill horror. The prospect of another gruesome, sweaty walk home almost made her turn around and go back. Almost.
She’d spent an hour getting ready for this outing. What else had she to do in this village-town? The girl with the crystalline green eyes on the February 1974 cover of Cleo, with her shiny windswept hair, would never comprehend just how Nayeema suffered to copy her unattainably wispy locks. In the end, Nayeema had tied her thick hair away from her face, into a tight chignon that she wound into the back of her head. She couldn’t turn back home, now. She had fava beans to buy. And if there was somewhere in Burraboo where a perfectly respectable young married woman infatuated with The Carpenters might listen to some music and tap her toes, then she’d find it.
Coarse grass rose to her mid-calf. She tried not to look down or think about the bugs that consorted by her feet. Better to stare at the distant treetops sprawled beneath the sky, like the helix of a thousand ears overgrown with fluffy hair. She picked her way carefully along the knotted verge with a delirious nostalgia for the greasy food shops that she used to complain about when she lived in the Paprika Triangle. She would have happily eaten a skewer of lamb or a handful of roasted pistachios right now. But there was nothing. There were no noisy children to dodge, no trains rumbling by. Even the road was empty of traffic. Occasionally a car would pass by, the driver’s head craning to get a look at her.
She shouldn’t have minded. In Egypt, the familiar and the strange were eyeballed without equivocation. Curiosity was perfectly normal among Alexandrians and she shared the view that scrutinising others was a great way to alleviate boredom. But here, there was something about the lingering glances she’d been receiving that made her uncomfortable. More than curiosity, she felt these gazes singled her out. Her tight pencil skirt, which she had always felt smart wearing, seemed out of place in Burraboo; the black kohl around her dark eyes was too heavy-handed; the thick gold hoops on her ears were too conspicuous. In this new landscape she felt like a zebra in a paddock full of sheep.
When she reached the small knot of shops she patted down the top of her hair and smoothed the frizz on her hairline. The Burraboo Pharmacy was a few metres from the Super-S Supermarket, nestled between Ted the Butcher and a branch of Australia Post, long closed for business. She stared at the doors of the pharmacy from the street and half considered paying Fawzy a visit.
Very busy man, hah, too busy for hello, hah? He had instructed her to visit him only during his lunch break. She chewed on her bottom lip. If she saw Fawzy’s cheeks pressed into coy dimples right now, it would put her in a bad mood for the rest of the day. The way he paraded his ‘Fred’ name badge made her dizzy with irritation; but worse than the dimples and the name badge was his new way of speaking. Since arriving in Burraboo, the clarity of Fawzy’s speech was a marvel. His consonants were as crisp as the crease in his trousers. No way was she going to visit him today.
Instead, she focused on the meal she would cook tonight in their landlord’s kitchen. The cooking kept her occupied in the afternoons and each meal was becoming more elaborate than the one before. She would soon be down to the skinniest supplies of cumin, coriander seeds, fava beans, chickpeas, chillies, and olives. Her trip to the Super-S Supermarket three days ago had been a rubbish waste of time. When she’d asked the uninterested woman at the cash till where the olives and fava beans were kept, the woman had barely dragged her eyes away from the magazine in her hands. ‘Best you ask Wendy or Stan. They’ll be back on Thursday.’
Nayeema had been right to ignore Fawzy and bring her favourite dried beans and ground spices from Sydney. What did he know about these things? Fawzy had laughed at her when she’d suggested that it would be difficult to buy food in a small town like Burraboo.
‘This is nonsense talk. It’s 1974, not 1904. Who tells you this nonsense talk?’ he’d said.
‘Lots of people tell me. Jehan and Leila … even Nabil warns me that in many parts of Sydney it is difficult to find spaghetti that doesn’t come in a tin.’
Fawzy had pulled a face. ‘You shouldn’t listen to Nabil. He is all talk and no trousers.’
‘I’ll miss my friends.’
‘Ah. You’ll make new friends.’
‘It won’t be the same as the Paprika Triangle.’
‘Just wait, ya butta, you’ll see.’
Heat pressed down like a dirty hand on Nayeema’s head. She was in no hurry to shop at the butcher’s after yesterday’s humiliating encounter with the butcher’s son. Her hands went clammy at the memory and she stood motionless for a moment. The butcher’s son wouldn’t survive a day in the Paprika Triangle with his antics. Someone would have clouted him over the head or pulled aside his father with a complaint.
She sighed and walked towards the Super-S Supermarket. A few cars were parked on Main Road. Under the faded green awning of The Royal Hotel, a dog barked at her. A clump of woodland was followed by a petrol station, then more woodland. All this empty land, Nayeema thought, so much space. Sydney was only a couple of hours south of Burraboo by car, but felt as distant as Alexandria.
After arriving in Sydney, she and Fawzy had moved into an apartment block in Petersham that sat below the airport’s flight path. It was a red brick building and every apartment block that surrounded them was also built of the same red brick, so Nayeema had named their neighbourhood the ‘Paprika Triangle’. It was the golden mile of Petersham because there was always something to remind her of Alexandria: old women with arthritic ankles who wrapped their scraggly hair in black scarves; Nino who roasted his almonds in such a way as to rival Emil’s on Ruml Street; and the men who congregated for hours on the street on warm nights, smoking and sharing a laugh.
Apartment balconies were stacked, one on top of the other, like dirty dishes. The drone of traffic from nearby Parramatta Road rose and fell like a wheezing troll, and the train lines at the rear of their apartment block made a rattle that snaked through the belly of the building. Below Nayeema and Fawzy’s flat were the Omars. Next to them were the Faraks. The songs of Abdel Halim Hafez swaddled her. Scents lingered: fried garlic, chilli and tomatoes. Anatoli’s deli, a few blocks away, sold olives out of large barrels. Aniseed, cloves, nutmeg and sesame seeds were sold by weight from large casks. Lebanese bread came three times a week from a bakery on the other side of Sydney; Fawzy refused to eat the Lebanese loaves, insisting that the only bread he would touch would be white and fluffy, pre-cut and sandwich ready. ‘No need to cling to the old ways. What is the point of coming here?’ he would scold. She loved the Paprika Triangle the way she had once loved Alexandria, before her bitterness towards her brothers had set like burnt caramel left to cool.
In the Paprika Triangle, Jehan spoke constantly of her desire for a single piece of baklava from a tiny sweet shop in an obscure laneway in Alexandria; Nabil often reminisced about his brothers. During these outpourings of remembrance, Fawzy would catch her eye and they’d smile at one another, neither uttering a word.
Nayeema pushed open the glass doors of the Super-S Supermarket. Chill slapped her face as she stepped inside. Goosebumps rose on her arms. There was a woman sweeping the cracked linoleum floor near the entrance. She was wearing small silver-hooped earrings that were barely visible beneath her long red hair; redder than Shirley Bassey’s in the Diamonds Are Forever poster that Anatoli tacked up on the wall of his deli.
‘Hot enough for you, pet?’ said the woman. She had blazing cherry-coloured fingernails on all but one bereft nail, which was unpainted and ragged. She stopped sweeping to look at Nayeema.
Was this an actual question or one of those ironic declarations that Australians liked to make when they wanted to be funny? Irony, Fawzy had told her, was an Australian trait that she had better start enjoying.
Nayeema smiled, nodded politely to the woman and entered the aisles. Her leather sandals made a sucking, indecent noise on the sticky linoleum floor. There were three aisles in the supermarket and after a quick lap of all three she could still find no evidence of dried beans. She made her way back to the front of the store. Be clear. Be concise.
‘Excuse me,’ Nayeema said to the woman, who was now seated at the cash register and appraising her mangy fingernail. ‘Have you the borlotti beans?’
‘Yeah pet, we got baked beans. Second aisle.’
‘Not baked. Borlotti.’
‘Bilotti? What’s that?’ She pushed her hair behind her ears as though this might improve her comprehension of the borlotti bean.
Nayeema smiled appreciatively. She could now see the woman’s entire ear. Her generous lobes were plump and crimson like a carnation in bloom. They were significantly detached, without any drooping. Was that …? Could they be mismatched? Yes, the left ear was decidedly larger than the right ear. This woman had spectacular ears. She cleared her throat. ‘Is bean. Is a kind of bean.’
After a pause, the woman at the cashier said, ‘Never heard of it. We got baked beans, but.’ Her face was a crumpled sheet of lines and folds.
‘What about okra. Have you the okra?’
‘Nuh.’ She appraised Nayeema closely. ‘You must be Fred’s wife. He’s a nice fella you got there, pet. I met him this morning. Naomi, is it?’
The woman squinted. ‘I’m Wendy. Listen, pet, I’ve just come back from a week in Brisbane so we’re a bit low on stock, but if you want anything fancy like those beans you’ll have to get up to Jindy.’
‘Three towns north of here. Straight up the highway. Take you thirty minutes to get up there,’ said Wendy, her mouth widening into a smile large enough to show Nayeema her stained gums. ‘So how youse getting on? Settling into your new house okay? I hear Tom’s been fixing it up for youse.’
Her landlord, Tom Grieves, lived two doors away, in the most majestic house she had ever seen. Verandahs wrapped around his sandstone house like ribbons around a gift. His kitchen alone was a monument to modern technology; it glistened with red formica and bright orange tiles and appliances. In all of her twenty-one years she had never before seen such a kitchen. Not even her rich, stuck-up Aunty Salwa in el Montaza had a kitchen so perfect. Her aunty’s oven was perfectly prehistoric in comparison.
‘Yes, it’s very wonderful. Tom, he makes the house brand new for us, with the brand new carpet and the brand new wallpaper.’
Wendy whistled. ‘His Granny Bess used to live in that house. So did he, for a bit. It’s one of his better rentals. Good elevation and all that. You’ve done well, pet.’
‘Tom, he gives us his granny’s furniture until we buy brand new. We are happy. But the kitchen is not ready yet. We have no oven, no gas cooker. Maybe next week they will come from Sydney,’ said Nayeema, breathless and excited. These were her first words since breakfast with Fawzy.
‘Tom, he lets me come into his house and cook dinner in his kitchen.’
Wendy’s eyes widened. ‘Is that so?’
‘Yes, very wonderful kitchen.’
She pursed her lips and slowly released a soft whistle. ‘I’ll bet. Well, I hope you settle down real nice here. You got kids?’
‘No kids,’ Nayeema said, as lightly as she could manage.
‘None yet, hey.’ She smiled. ‘Geez, pet, what’ve you done to yourself there?’ asked Wendy, noticing the swollen birthmark on Nayeema’s chest.
Oh, brother. Instantly, the prick and prickle of her birthmark flared like a match. ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Small scratch,’ she lied.
Wendy nodded contemplatively. ‘Tell you what, pet. I’ll ask Stan to order that bean you want. Bilotto. Wouldn’t hold my breath though. He hasn’t changed anything in this joint for twenty years. He’s a stubborn bastard. I’ll tell you that for nothing.’
‘Who is Stan?’
‘The Super-S,’ she said, and winked. ‘My fella.’
As Nayeema walked away from the supermarket she felt the first stirrings of genuine enthusiasm in days. So Burraboo wasn’t just a small town in the middle of nowhere. She whispered the word again, ‘Jean dee,’ letting her tongue flit around the letters. She would tell Fawzy about this Jean dee place. It was probably like a small city. Moving to a new place was so much easier once you knew where everything was, she reassured herself. Fawzy wouldn’t understand her need to be surrounded by comforting things. His home was inside his head, where he seemed to live most of his day, a pristine palace of his own creation. She imagined that the interior of his head was plush with sated dreams, perfectly pleated drapes and orderly spaces that never collected dust.
The shriek of cicadas grew urgent and feverishly surged in pitch. Did they ever stop? She stopped walking and tapped her heel against the pavement. Her sweaty toes were beginning to slide so far forward in her sandals that the leather was cutting into her skin. The energy she’d felt just a minute ago evaporated into the humid fug of Main Street.
There was a distinct yellow smudge, a haze on the skyline, like the residual tannin drops that stubbornly remain beneath the rim of a teacup long after the tea has been drunk.
She walked a few anxious metres down the road to the butcher’s shop, taking small steps. Oh, brother. Her temperature rose when she saw the butcher’s teenage son standing behind the meat counter. His jaw set hard when she entered. He couldn’t have been any older than sixteen and his hair looked as though it had never been washed. His eyes were as red as a rat’s.
She said hello to him. He returned with a stare. Pointing at the lamb mince, she asked for three kilograms. The boy looked at her as though she had said nothing. She focused on the fluffy hair on his upper cheeks.
‘Three kilograms please,’ Nayeema repeated.
‘What did you say?’
The buzzer at the door sounded. An elderly woman walked into the shop. ‘Won’t keep you waiting long, Mrs Walker,’ the boy said.
‘I would like three kilograms, please,’ said Nayeema, pleased that the words came out as she’d intended.
‘Of what?’ said the boy.
‘Of mince. Three kilo of mince.’
‘You want three kilograms.’ He spoke slowly and loudly. He didn’t move.
‘Yes.’ Sweat gathered on Nayeema’s forehead.
Another buzz sounded from the door but Nayeema kept her gaze on the boy. He started to reach for lamb chops.
‘Mince. I want mince.’
‘Okay, okay. Lamb chops and mince.’ He smirked.
Nayeema wanted to slap his grubby face. ‘No. Just mince.’
The boy crossed his arms and his mouth formed a vile smile. ‘What did you say? I didn’t understand.’
‘For gawd’s sake, Len.’ Nayeema recognised the voice even before she looked. It was Wendy from the Super-S Supermarket. Wendy winked at her and scowled at the boy. ‘You want me to tell your old man about this or are you gonna give the lady what she asked for?’
The boy mumbled under his breath and began scooping mince from the tray on the counter. Nayeema offered Wendy a feeble smile of gratitude. With hot ears she paid the butcher’s boy, snatched the bag of mince from the countertop, and rushed out of the shop just before the first hot tear fell down her cheek.
She bolted straight up the hill towards Hungerford Place, paying no attention to the weight of the shopping she carried. Tchhh. That stupid bugger-off son of butcher, il kalb, he was a dog. Never again would she set foot in that butcher shop. Sweat streamed down her back as the prick and prickle on her chest intensified.
When she finally reached her house on Hungerford Place she went straight into the bathroom and stared at her birthmark in the mirror. She knew she shouldn’t. She wouldn’t. Her chest stung like lemon juice on a cut finger. With a groan she cursed the butcher’s son and then her birthmark for the thousand humiliations it had caused her. In a single motion she pulled off her pale blue blouse and unclipped her bra. She had to. She must. She scratched and savaged her swollen skin until the backs of her fingernails were filled with blood.
Fawzy would not be happy with her lack of control. Not at all. She splashed cold water on her chest for several minutes until some of the swelling reduced and a small pond had collected between her feet. She carelessly flicked the water towards the drain, pausing a moment from her current misery to take in the delightful bathroom. All of it was brand new. Peach and daffodil-coloured tiles, peach framed mirror. Very fashionable. Very wow.
She looked at her watch. In two-and-a-half hours’ time she would let herself into Tom Grieves’ house. She would meticulously prepare the evening’s meal. She would have something to do other than think about the butcher’s son.
She shuffled down the hallway, felt the tickle of the newly laid shag pile carpet between her toes. Brand new. She brushed the palm of her hand over the embossed orange and cream striped wallpaper. Brand new. She passed the half-completed kitchen. Soon the appliances would arrive and the kitchen would be brand new, too.
She slumped down on the sofa and stared at the mulberry-coloured carpet. Her legs were shaky and her head felt as swollen as a fig soaked in water. For two hours she didn’t move except to roll from her back to her side, but sleep did not come. How could she relax when this prick and prickle was all torment?
The last time her birthmark had pricked and prickled like this was the day her parents were killed in a tram accident. Before that, just before her brother Sayad had fallen sick with pneumonia; before that, when magnoon Mamdouh, mad Mamdouh, had made her watch him break the neck of a pigeon; before that, the morning of the day her best friend had fallen into an unmarked pit in the road and broken her leg in three places; before that, the day a neighbour had almost set their entire building alight when she’d fallen asleep with a cigarette still burning in her hand. Bad things happened whenever her birthmark pricked and prickled. It was an unassailable truth.
Nayeema watched Tom Grieves tilt his girth sideways as he stepped into his kitchen. His feet were the size of ciabatta loaves. There was a gentle smattering of grey that made his otherwise shiny brown hair look dull in patches. He was probably older than her eldest brother.
Above his top lip sat a thick, clipped moustache, styled like George Harrison’s but neater and glossier. His muscular neck fanned out from the base of his head like an ancient tree trunk. But his ears were like a far out; they were something to behold. His lobes were succulent and detached. The top of his ear sat high and proud, positioned above his upper eyelid, while the bottom of his ear lined up precisely with the end of his nose. Some might say he had an ear that was too flashy. Not Nayeema. His tragus, the part of the ear positioned opposite to the entrance of the ear canal, was pale with a distinct oval-shaped bulge like the bulb of a spring onion. The tubular rim of Tom’s ear, the helix, was a red, dense, solid cage. It was this bit of his ear that had her staring every time.
In the Paprika Triangle, Sheena Chen, a neighbour from Shanghai, had told her that the Chinese believed a person’s fortune could be read from the position of his ears. Ears that started above the line of the eyebrows indicated a person of higher intellect. Yes. Very wow.
‘Neema.’ He waved his hand in greeting. His voice came from somewhere deep in his thick belly. There was an edge to his voice, buried within his baritone, like the sound of a drill muffled inside a blanket.
Why did Australians find her name so difficult to pronounce? She had a good name, a solid name. Na-yee-ma: to live a life that is enjoyable and prosperous. She was named after her father’s great aunt, whose greatest talent, it was said, was her ability to foresee the future. Predictions of calamities were her great aunt’s specialty. ‘Why don’t you call yourself Nina?’ Fawzy often asked. No, she would not dishonour the memory of her great aunt by butchering her name. Fawzy had no business, no business at all, to ask her to lie about her name. Yet, there was something so charming and humorous about Tom’s interpretation of her name that she hadn’t once corrected him.
She placed her hand casually over her swollen birthmark and felt her nipple pulse with fervour. Without checking her reflection on the oven door, she knew that her nipple was now upright and as stiff as a bayonet. Pretend like normal. She concentrated on finely chopping the onions with the half-moon blade that she had brought with her from Sydney.
‘Hey. Smells great in here,’ he sniffed appreciatively. She watched his gaze move across the kitchen bench before landing on the weeping mess of broken, bloodied skin on her chest. His eyes widened with horror or curiosity. He opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind. ‘Leave you to it,’ he said abruptly, and started to make his way towards the back verandah.
She touched her chest. Fudge bucket damn. Her birthmark was starting to weep into her blouse. It was too late to hide the indignity of her appearance now. To the hell with the birthmark.
‘Tom, wait, before you go, please … there is a tray I need. Is too high for me. Can you help?’ She pointed at an overhead cupboard.
He gave a big toothy smile. ‘No worries.’ He stepped back into the kitchen and opened the cupboard.
He plonked the tray on the bench and waited for a moment near the oven. ‘You know, I’m real sorry about your kitchen still not being ready. I’ll call about your oven and cooktop tomorrow. I reckon the delivery can’t be too far away.’ He spoke in the direction of the oven but his eyes darted everywhere, flitting in uneasy watchfulness. ‘I hope you’re happy with the rest of the house.’
‘Oh, yes. Brand new carpet and the brand new wallpaper. Is very wonderful house. Thank you.’
‘Maybe you’ll think about buying it off me one of these days.’
‘Oh no, we won’t be here for long time. We buy in Sydney.’
‘I was joking.’
‘We stay here for two years,’ Nayeema said, more for herself than for Tom. She threw the chopped onions into the bowl of minced beef, pine nuts, parsley and garlic.
Into the palm of her hand she poured a triangle of salt and added that to the mixture of ground coriander, paprika and dried chilli. She sampled the mixture with her finger. It was a little too hot for kofta, meatballs. Fawzy wouldn’t approve. She smiled and added a little more dried chilli. Perfect.
Tom raised his eyebrows with exaggerated surprise and pressed his lips together. ‘Funny, I’d heard that if things worked out for Fred, he’d be taking over the pharmacy. You know, buying it.’
‘Who tells you this?’ She snorted, adding vigorous shakes of black pepper to the mixture in the bowl, her arms tense at the thought of being trapped inside el professeur’s Burraboo fantasy. ‘Fawzy buying the pharmacy, this is impossible, hah,’ she said as playfully as she could manage. ‘Must be joke. We make agreement to go back to Sydney in two years.’ She added long lugs of olive oil to the mixture and plunged both hands into the bowl. With her fingers she coaxed the kofta mixture together in gentle plucking motions, before using her palms, alternating one after the other to combine the ingredients. The satisfying squelch of the oil as she pummelled the mince and squeezed it between her fingers warmed her to her toes.
Tom’s eyes focused on the mince. ‘You just never know. You might change your mind. This place has a way of working its way into you. I never thought I’d end up back here,’ he laughed and jammed a hand into his trouser pocket. ‘Course, that’s for you and Fred to decide.’
‘We decide already.’
‘Sure. Okay … well, if you need anything else, I’ll be on the verandah.’
His hefty torso almost blocked the dwindling daylight as he passed through the doorway. She stared at a half-cut lemon on the bench. Fawzy wouldn’t do such a donkey-fool thing as buy a pharmacy in this village-town. Her hand went limp as some mince mixture slithered between her fingers onto the floor and her birthmark kicked. He wouldn’t, would he?
The kofta were cooking in the oven. The air was thick with the aroma of ground coriander, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, sumac and parsley. In every corner of Tom’s kitchen was the dance of garlic as she finely chopped a couple of cloves for the ta’leya, a heady sauce of fried garlic, tomato puree, minced chilli pepper and spices that she’d let splutter in a hot pan for five minutes. She would pour it over the fried eggplant, which she’d cut into rings, seconds before serving it to the dinner table. It was the final component. The rice was cooked, the salad chopped, the tahini prepared. Nayeema checked the time. It would be another half-hour before Fawzy arrived.
She stepped outside into the cooling evening. A briny wind raced through the treetops. Thin clouds splayed across the dimmed sky like flat ribbons of filo pastry. Tom was still seated in his green wicker chair. His socks had rolled down from mid-calf to just above his ankle, to reveal soft and pale skin below the crisp line that the sun had worn into his flesh. His forearms were tanned and freckled. Shallow grooves ran down his forehead to meet his eyebrows, just like Dawud el Al’aan, Dawud the Worried, who roasted the best sugar-coated almonds in Alexandria. Tom’s lips were red and plump and reminded her of David Cassidy’s lips. She would never have thought that wrinkles like Tom’s could co-exist with those lips. It wasn’t too great a stretch to imagine that in his younger years, Tom might have looked quite a bit like David Cassidy. His broad nose had an elegant tip. His face was held together stiffly until he smiled; and when he smiled it was as though the rains had come to the delta and flooded its banks.
‘Is very beautiful, your view … the sunset. Is very wow,’ she said, and helped herself to a chair next to him. She took in his sprawling backyard, which extended into the next block. Mid-summer roses grew in random combinations alongside a riot of thick green ferns and palms that sprung from the knotted buffalo grass.
‘Yeah, I’ve always loved it. I miss it when I’m travelling,’ he boomed into the delicate beginnings of the evening, his eyes steady on the horizon. ‘Do you miss Sydney?’
‘Yes, many friends I have there.’ She thought of Jehan in the Paprika Triangle. She thought of the lively conversations that took place in the corridors and hallways of the apartment block on warm evenings when her neighbours occasionally left their children asleep in their beds to have a chat outside. Back in the Paprika Triangle, there was a shared experience of aspirations, failures, humour, and even food, though they all had arrived in Australia with different tongues, cultures, and religions. Oh, she knew that they all talked too: about her self-imposed exile from her brothers in Alexandria, her childless marriage. But people knew who she was back in Sydney. There, she was a part of something.
She turned her head away from Tom, feeling her cheeks colour for the lack of words at her disposal. Where were the words that could explain the life she had in Sydney? In frustration and embarrassment her mind fell blank and she felt her chest drift up towards her mouth, to where the words should have been. It was times like this that she felt herself contracting in this new country. She patted down the front of her skirt and hoped that she appeared less pathetic than she felt.
‘How long were you living there?’
‘Only two years,’ she sighed. ‘Just long enough for Fawzy to do his bridging course, you know, at the university. He had to study a second time … his degree from Egypt was not enough, you know. He studied so hard, always studying. I think, maybe, he could have failed just a little … you know, to give us more time in Sydney. I am a city girl. In the city, there is everything.’
Tom laughed. ‘Never could stand it myself. I went to boarding school in Sydney, when I was just a boy.’ He ran his hand over the top of his head. His knuckles were like ball-bearings.
It was hard to imagine Tom ever being a boy. ‘Boarding school? What is this?’
‘Boarding school is a type of school where you don’t come home until the holidays. You sleep, eat, fight, go to class, everything … at the school.’
‘Your parents, they send you away from the home?’
‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ he laughed, his handsome actor lips receding for a moment. ‘It was a very expensive school. It had views over Sydney Harbour.’ He stared absently at a currawong that was boldly perched on the verandah railing. ‘Me and my brother—we both boarded at school, then we boarded at uni. But he stayed on afterwards. Met his missus at uni. He never looked back, I guess.’
‘Only one brother?’
‘Yup. You got brothers or sisters?’
‘Me, I have four brothers.’
‘Do you write to them much?’
‘No.’ Her tongue went thick. ‘They are dead. Both.’
‘Sorry to hear that. Mine are too. Dead. Both of them.’
A loud crunch from the densely grown garden made Nayeema turn abruptly.
Tom smiled and faced her directly for the first time. ‘When the garden is this dry, even a lizard can make as much noise as a scrub turkey.’
‘Who tells you about Fawzy buying pharmacy?’ Nayeema’s voice was pinched.
‘Don’t worry about it. I must have got my wires crossed.’
She frowned and nodded. They sat in silence as the final fingers of peach waned to dusty terracotta, and Tom’s shallow breathing lengthened out, and the last streaks of colour on the waxy sky drained to grey.
In the centre of Tom Grieves’ grand dining room was an ornate chandelier. Below the table stood a mahogany dining table, very wow, with intricately carved legs. Tom had draped a cream and white embroidered tablecloth over the imposing table, which could seat up to twelve people, maybe more, thought Nayeema. This was where she and Fawzy had spent every night so far in Burraboo: with their landlord, in a clamour of conversation, garlic and chilli; the three of them at one end of the long table.
Large dishes and small were clustered between them: kofta, rice, potatoes, fried eggplant, fattoush salad, pickles, tahini, olives and swathes of mint all within arm’s reach. This was the convenient, self-service style of eating that Nayeema preferred but for a moment, she felt a pang of self-consciousness. Her spicy, bold food looked strange sitting atop the delicate pastoral motifs of Tom’s Wedgewood plates. El professeur must be cringing, she thought.
‘By jolly,’ said Fawzy, pressing his lips together to evoke his dimples. ‘Pat Morris runs a busy pharmacy. A busy pharmacy, indeed.’ He nodded enthusiastically to Tom and gingerly placed his knife and fork down. ‘It is a most impressive operation. Do you know Pat well?’
‘Well enough. Burraboo is a cosy town. You’ll figure that out pretty quick. He’s a good bloke, but he’s getting on. Not far from retirement now. It’s a good little business to hand over to the right buyer.’
Nayeema casually loaded her plate with pink, beetroot-tinted pickled turnips while closely watching Fawzy.
‘It’s always a pleasure to work with outstanding individuals,’ said Fawzy with a broad smile, giving nothing away. El professeur was as relaxed and charming as the day they had left Sydney. His head was craned back awkwardly as he looked up at Tom. Even seated, there was a comical size differential between them. Fawzy was not a short man, but next to his landlord he appeared diminutive and so much younger than his twenty-four years. In a blink so fast that she wondered if she had seen it at all, Fawzy flashed Tom a look of caution.
Tom cleared his throat. ‘Reckon there are folks going to the pharmacy just to check you out, Fred … er, you know, say hello and all that. We’re a nosy lot. The novelty factor of the new guy. Wouldn’t be surprised if a few people have come in with some phantom headaches?’ Tom winked.
Fawzy nodded amiably. ‘I’ve been impressed by the ingenuity of ailments. Still, it is a delightful place to work, indeed. I cannot complain. Pat is a splendid chap and I admire what he has done very much. But … still,’ he hesitated, ‘I think there are areas that could be improved in the pharmacy, there are new systems and processes, modern approaches that I can bring,’ said Fawzy, his cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Fortunately, Pat is willing to entrust me with these changes. Small steps, of course.’
‘Yeah? Like what?’ asked Tom.
‘Starting from tomorrow I will be moving around the shelving, repositioning where things are stocked on the shelves. The dispensary section is poorly positioned, that will have to move. After that, I will order new merchandise. Merchandising is a big thing in Sydney.’
‘Sounds like big steps,’ said Nayeema.
‘Impressive,’ said Tom, and smirked. ‘Bev won’t like that.’
Nayeema recalled Pat’s daughter from their brief introduction at the pharmacy a few days ago. She had a loud and musical whistle, and the reddest ear tragus Nayeema had ever seen. Nayeema could see Fawzy resented her confident authority on all matters related to the pharmacy. She was brazen. She looked unwashed. Above all, she was no scientist.
‘Beverly is quite displeased with me,’ sniffed Fawzy. ‘She laughs at my suggestions to improve the business … but, well … one must always remember, one can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’
Tom raised his eyebrows and speared a kofta into his mouth.
‘It was a favourite expression of my friend, Edward Campbell. He often said to me, “Lad, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”’ Fawzy paused. ‘Have you heard of the famous scientist Edward Campbell?’
‘Can’t say so. Should I?’
‘He was quite influential in academic circles before the war.’
Nayeema sucked in her breath. Oh no. Here we go again. Edward bey drifted like a sulphuric stench into every anecdote Fawzy told. She loaded the honorific, bey, with a quiet sarcasm that she rarely kept to herself.
‘Be careful with Bev,’ said Nayeema, keen to shift the conversation away from Edward bey. Then in Arabic, she said, ‘If you have to drag a dog to the hunt, then neither he nor his hunting is very good.’
Fawzy’s body stiffened. He hated her speaking in Arabic, and especially in front of Australians. He noiselessly placed his knife and fork down on his plate in perfect parallel unison. ‘Nina,’ he said, softly.
‘Nayeema,’ said Fawzy, curtly.
‘I forget to speak in English sometimes,’ she said to Tom. ‘Fawzy gets upset.’
‘Never mind … about Beverley,’ said Fawzy stiffly. ‘She has no expertise whatsoever in the science of the body or pharmaceuticals. She is a cashier.’ Fawzy popped a large pickled turnip in his mouth and started to chew it in that fastidious, exaggerated way that Nayeema instantly understood he was counting each chew. He would reach twenty chews. Then he would swallow.
‘Well, I gotta tell you, Fred, people are real impressed with you, mate. I’m hearing this all around town today. You’ve been a real surprise.’
‘Oh. What were people expecting?’ asked Fawzy, far too quickly. The regard of others was like bread to him.
Her poor little Professeur. She noticed his fingers gripped around his knife and fork; saw the calluses and tears and cuts still etched in his hands that marked the indignity of his physical labour. The construction sites across Sydney that he had worked on were not yet a distant memory. She pinched the fleshy part of her thumb hard for ridiculing his twenty chews. He deserved to be happy.
‘Don’t get me wrong, all the folk around here are used to Pat. The old codger has been the face of that pharmacy for fifty odd years. People don’t like change, especially around here. Believe me.’ Tom grimaced. ‘They don’t always like newcomers.’
‘You mean people like us, the New Australians, the wogs, the ethnics … we know what people say. We hear it, we see it, like the butcher’s son.’ Nayeema shovelled fattoush onto her plate and let the serving spoon fall back onto the platter with an indelicate clank.
Fawzy frowned. ‘I am an accredited and registered pharmacist. I studied at Sydney University. Before that, Alexandria University, where I read Science and English and discussed Goethe and Descartes with Edward Campbell.’
Fawzy was just warming up. Here it comes, those crisp consonants, those perfectly executed BBC vowels, the circle returning to that son of a shoe, Edward bey.
‘Well, maybe … that isn’t what I meant,’ Tom said, shifting in his seat, ‘what I mean is that Burraboo isn’t known for being progressive or dynamic or whatnot. I should bloody know.’ Tom half-laughed in disappointment. ‘But I reckon, Fred, you’ll be getting on just fine here. Burraboo could do with more people like you, agitating for change, wanting things to be better. This old town has seen better days, that’s for bloody sure, back when I was a half-pint whippersnapper.’
‘Snapper? Like fish?’ She frowned. This new language was impossible.
Tom laughed, his handsome actor lips shining. ‘When I was a boy.’
‘I’ve seen your posters about the Horizon at Serpentine Heights. By jolly, a very big project indeed. There is a town meeting, I believe?’ Fawzy asked, nodding enthusiastically.
‘Yup. This will be Burraboo’s first development in years.’
‘Our landlord is quite the business man, Nayeema, his shoulders carry a tremendous undertaking.’
‘Big man of business?’
Tom snorted. ‘Nah, my old man will be cussing in his grave at that. Big Jack Grieves was the big man of business. At least he thought so.’
‘Which old man, you say?’ said Nayeema.
‘My old man … my father. He owned a lot of businesses in this area. I inherited most of them. Well, my brother and I did. Before we sold most of them.’ He reached for his water glass.
Nayeema watched the dancing bump on his throat as he drank. ‘Tell us about your father.’
‘Wouldn’t want to ruin the night. Another time, maybe.’
‘Tell me then, why you choose the little Burraboo to do your big business when you can pick Sydney?’
‘Sunsets aren’t as good in Sydney.’ He placed another two pieces of kofta on his plate. ‘Seriously, if you play your cards right, there are plenty of advantages to building a business here.’
At these words it was impossible for Nayeema to ignore Fawzy’s radiant cheeks, the zeal in his eyes. He was a jackal with his ears pointed up to the sky, he was the very picture of attention. Her breath stayed in her throat. She could no longer have one ear blocked by mud and the other blocked by dough. For the first time since they had started eating, she felt the familiar stab of pain through her birthmark like hot skewers through her chest.
The front door shuddered and the dining room windows rattled as the wind outside gathered pace. Dogs started to whine. She thought of the gritty Khamaseen desert winds that flooded Alexandria at the start of spring. The Khamaseen, the fifty, were so named because they charged for fifty days through North Africa like a murky torrent of desiccated orange peel. When she was still small enough to sit comfortably on her father’s knee, Hassan would explain that the Khamaseen was a ferocious gale that simmered all year in the dry furnace of the Sahara Desert before it tore north across Africa, over Egypt, and into the Mediterranean. Hassan would hiss with his eyes wide and wild as he told how the winds churned the earth and lifted coarse sand and dust for hundreds of kilometres, drenching Alexandria with desert soot and illness. The Khamaseen could shred your lungs like a sickle. Men went mad during the time of the Khamaseen winds, only to recover their senses when the foul scourge blew out of the city. Babies howled, sleepwalkers ruled the night, chickens forgot to lay their eggs and goats barked like dogs. ‘Little bird, life will always blow the right way if you know where the winds are coming from,’ Hassan would tell her.
She put down her fork and looked at Fawzy then Tom, heard a bucket skid across Tom’s back verandah and the groan of an awning as the wind blustered and bucked outside. Her heart screamed and her eyeballs pounded and her birthmark prickled as she realised she had no idea what way the wind was blowing.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Fava Beans For Breakfast by Suzanne Salem. Coming March 2017!