It is our special place. Our meeting place. He stares up at me from his two-storey bungalow and I peer down at him through my third-floor window. He is Arab, the son of a local farmer. I am African, a diplomat’s daughter. It is 1980’s Israel. We live in Ramallah on the West Bank of the city. Under Jerusalem skies I have never heard his voice. We have never spoken to each other. Only our eyes and the gestures of our hands have communicated our friendship – so rare, almost sacred. Every evening, after our family meal, I retreat to my bedroom to rendezvous with him. He is always there. On time: watching – waiting –wanting. With a shy smile I wave, tapping gently against the pane. He presses close against his window, grins and salutes back. He is older than me; eighteen or even twenty. And he smokes. Whenever he lights up I tell him off with a stern expression and a forceful wag of my index finger. On one occasion, I even took the liberty of drawing him a picture of a furious looking heart. It resembled an enlarged pea, crayoned in black. A black heart. When he saw the image, he threw his head back and laughed (out loud), and proceeded to light a cigarette. But then he paused, gave me a quizzical look, and without taking a single puff he stubbed it out again. My pout unravelled into a ripple of chuckles. How absurd it was to think that he could ever have a black heart. His brown eyes tell a different story. They bubble with laughter as if his face is bursting at its seams. Sometimes we play a game. We breathe moisture against the window and trace letters to each other. Once, he wrote: I-B-R-A-H-I-M. That’s when I first knew his name. At other times we fill our hour without games or words. We do nothing but undress each other with our eyes and our thoughts. This evening, as he has done many times before, he writes: C-O-M-E.
His gaze searches mine and I drown in a pool of deep longing. Bottomless. My breathing is shallow as I long to be in his reach; to feel his breath on my skin, to succumb to his fingertips, to taste his lips. Except I am only fourteen. In the last two months or so, I have been tempted with the idea of sneaking out of the house to spend an hour with him. Even thirty minutes. Even five minutes. Five minutes caught up in his embrace. In my dreams: we are on a raft navigating through the strident seas and storm. It is here that I find him. I thread my fingers through his tousle of chestnut curls, and wrap my hands around his stomach, placing my head on his strong back. The bluster sweeping around us goes unnoticed. He turns and collects my trembling limbs in his arms. After holding me for a while, he lies me down on the wood, and runs his hands along the smoothness of my skin; the plump of my cheek, the hollow of my clavicle, the ridges of my ribcage, the swell of my thigh, down to the tautness of my calf, foot and toes. Just as he is about to start on the right side of my length, he drops a kiss on my forehead, then always – at that precise moment – a sudden squall tips our raft, tossing us overboard. As I scramble in the water all I see is the sparkle of splashes in the moonlight. I manage to hold on to the raft. I strain to find him. I don’t see him. I drift... drift into the deep. On the other side, I awake to his letters: C-O-M-E.
It hasn’t happened because I am terrified. Frightened of my fiendish father. If I am caught, I will be punished. I will be whipped with a cane or a belt, the reward for such disobedience. Even now, I can imagine my father bearing down over me with the cane in his hand, running the stick under my nose with the taunt: Smell it. Smell it. This is what I’ll use to scourge your skin, a dark anger flushing his demeanour. Or perhaps the buckle will teach you a better lesson, he’ll bark, disappearing into the bedroom he shares with my mother to retrieve a long leather belt with a succulent steel buckle. If he is in an amenable mood he’ll give me a choice. Through his gapped teeth, he’ll hiss, bamboo or buckle? If I am caught out of the house my mother will be of little use. She offers no source of comfort or protection. My mother is a weak reed spun by my father’s savage streak. Feeble, her cowardice masquerades in the silhouette of co-conspirator. My whole being aches to break free. I long for freedom from my father. His cruelty is a constant in our lives. It lingers like the stench of a rotten carcass. I spin back round to the present. And I see that Ibrahim has written: T-O-M-O-R-O---8-P-M. Against all common sense, I start to nod. It begins as a slow movement, and then it is forceful. Determined. Adamant. Resolute. I want to spend time with him. I will C-O-M-E.
I do not tell them I am going. I leave the apartment with the stealth of a burglar and the covertness of a spy. I glance at my watch and make a mental note. I have an hour before I’m discovered. I’ve told my parents – who are now engrossed in a re-run of Magnum P.I. – that I’ll be busy with my schoolwork for the next couple of hours. But I know my mother. She’ll come checking up on me in an hour’s time. It is her way of control. I walk steadily down the stairwell, deciding against the old-fashioned elevator which serves the six-storey building. It creaks when you slide the door open, groans when it comes to a halt, and growls between floors. I emerge from the apartment block and notice his outline under the street lamp. He motions for us to meet at the top of the street. There, there is a stone shack which operates as a general ‘nik nak’ store although it is now locked up for the night. Beyond the store, it’s a dead end. Apart, that is, from a rocky and thorny lane leading to the back fence of a Jewish settlement. We stroll up the slight slope separately. Both of us: walking on the pavement on our sides of the street. At the top, we make our way to the back of the store and find ourselves in a narrow space; hemmed between the walls of the store and a wall of prickly bushes. With only the light coming from the stars I feel the slight strain while my pupils adjust to the night cover. We face each other, saying nothing. He edges nearer to me, and says with a heavy accent: ‘You come.’
For the first time, he is looking down at me, and I am looking up at him. He reaches over and takes hold of my hand, strokes it as if it were a prized Persian kitten. The gentleness of his touch, all I can do is smile. Eighty days of waiting for a moment to connect in an intimate way and all he chooses to do is to caress my hand. Suddenly, we hear the sound of a lone car pulling up on the street side of the shop. He pulls away – instinctively. There is something wrong about our need and desire, even though, I cannot put it into words. I flinch. I am about to spin and sprint off – a wounded buck; but he grabs hold of me and draws me into his chest, into his strong support. I sink in his warmth. Comforted; a tingling sensation soars like the rising heat of rich hot cocoa layered with marshmallows. ‘No. No...’ he whispers again and again into the cavity of my ear, nibbling gently at my lobes. ‘I want but we can’t...’ he says abruptly, and pulls away for a second time. I understand, yet I’m hurt.
‘I better go...’ I mumble.
‘Miriam, please see me again.’
‘Next Saturday. At this time.’
‘I’ll try...’ I say in a low voice. How I’ll be able to slip away to see him, I’m unsure. But I want to see him before I return to England.
‘Please, come!’ he pleads.
In the days that follow: around my chores; completing the rest of my holiday homework, a history project on the Tudors; and fiddling with the goldfish in the fish bowl; we meet each evening. From our glass bowls we laugh and flirt, viewing one another like a TV screen. His goodbyes always end with: M-I-R-I-A-M---C-O-M-E.
Saturday morning. I’m brimming with excitement at tonight’s tryst; beside myself with imagined and anticipated pleasure. All day I keep busy with nothing. A strange restlessness lurks within me and I’m not even able to concentrate enough to fill the blank pages of my diary. It has been three days since my last entry. I try and get into the book I’ve been reading all summer; Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. However I soon abandon the idea because as I perceive the words on the page they appear to be gobblety-gook. In the end, I potter. That is until I hear a collision. It is around 5 o’clock when the crash that is unfolding sounds. A cacophony of: screeching metal, shattering glass, and squeals. All this: right outside the front side of our apartment block, on the main road. From the balcony, I hear the commotion, the shouts of onlookers. My mother is busy with the laundry and I hurriedly make my way outside to the scene. On the ground, I see him first. Sprawled, a few paces on the raised pavement. At the sight, my mind descends into confusion. It is as if a jigsaw puzzle has been scattered on a table. Or the wires of my brain have been short-circuited. Nothing makes sense. As I continue to push through the clucking crowd I hear the far-off cry of a siren. Then: I come face-to-face with the offender. My father’s maroon Mercedes which rests smashed against a lamp post. The windscreen is shattered in the pattern of an intricate web, and my father is arched over the steering wheel. In the haze that follows my mother arrives on the scene. We, my mother and I, are rushed off to Mount Scopus hospital with my father strapped in. He is barely alive. From the ambulance: through the window, through a blur of tears, I see Ibrahim’s body being covered with a single white sheet.
By Catherine Mark-Beasant