From A new life
It was fascinating how much a change of venue changed the shape of the class. Paula was an effusive hostess, welcoming them all, offering fruit juice from a sideboard. There was a slight awkwardness when she casually asked Nisareen if she would mind bringing in the tea and coffee from the kitchen. She mentioned that her usual housekeeper – ‘cleaner, really, but she does much more than that’ – was also from Iraq. A refugee. Her name was Rashida. She asked if Nisareen knew her. Nisareen’s face darkened. She and her husband were not refugees, she stated coldly. ‘We came here as immigrants. We have paid our own way. My husband is a professional.’
Nathan suggested that Rachel might be happy to assist Nisareen in the kitchen.
‘Yes, of course,’ Rachel said hastily. Anything to get over this awkwardness. She began to follow Nisareen. It seemed politic to separate the two for the moment, before Paula came up with any further comments.
‘Really, there’s no need to fuss,’ Paula bellowed out to them from the cream sofa near the window. The window overlooked other big glass-fronted homes on the Khandallah hills. Lights twinkled in an arc like stars around the black gash of the harbour. ‘Rashida set it all out before she left for the day.’
Nisareen went to put the kettle on. She gave a disapproving sniff. ‘This kitchen is too big to be practical,’ she said to Rachel, barely lowering her voice.
Rachel took the plastic wrap off the plate of small cakes she had baked after work that day. It was a beautiful kitchen. She wouldn’t have minded it herself.
Ian joined them. He was late. ‘Held up by a job again,’ he said. ‘Not even time for a meal before I came out.’ He eyed the dishes set out on the counter. His hand hovered for a moment over a plate of custard squares.
‘New Zealand cakes, these squares,’ Nisareen said disparagingly as she tidied them on the plate.
Paula must have got them from a bakery. They didn’t look particularly homemade.
‘Maybe I could just pinch one of these before we get started,’ Ian said.
‘Ready?’ Nathan popped his head around the door. He was eager to begin. He waited for them to bring the trays through. ‘Let’s get straight on to the stories.’
They started with Vita’s. She passed the copies around. Her story was about a girl who answered an advertisement to share a flat. All had gone well until the arrival of a strange new flatmate.
‘Whew,’ Ian said admiringly.
Paula gave a little shudder. ‘Vita,’ she said. ‘I’ll be having nightmares tonight.’
‘Really random,’ Theo said, though whether he was commenting on what Paula had said or on the story was hard to tell. ‘I’d have made the final scene even blacker myself.’
‘Chilling,’ Nathan said. ‘A few things you could do to improve it – get rid of some of that borrowed Film Noir stuff, that’s a bit too heavy-handed, I think – but all in all, you’ve really got something going here. And I think maybe cut it off before you get to the peak.’
The rest of the class took turns to read. Finally, Nathan picked up the glass jug from the coffee table and poured himself a glass of water. ‘Last one,’ he said encouragingly. It was Rachel’s turn. As she went to hand around copies of her story, she heard a barely covered sigh from Paula. She felt like sighing herself. It was surprisingly exhausting going through all these long stories in one sitting like this.
She watched people pass the copies of her story around. In the end, she had done what Nathan had suggested. Written as much as she could and left spaces where she wasn’t sure what was meant to happen. And now here was the group, probably fighting their own tiredness so they could in turn carefully and patiently read it for her. She pretended to reread her own words while waiting – agonisingly, surely the story wasn’t that long? – for them to finish.
‘I like it,’ Ian said enthusiastically when he finally looked up. ‘It’s a great yarn.’
A yarn? Something you might read by the light of a bonfire when you were out in the bush hunting for pigs.
‘No, I wouldn’t call it a yarn, myself,’ Nathan said consideringly. He was making notes on his copy with a fine-tipped black pen. It was possible he was merely doodling. ‘There’s something deeper about this story.’
‘Well, I liked it, too,’ Vita said. She glared at Ian. ‘It’s got a lot going for it.’
Paula chose that moment to try to move her bandaged leg to a different position. ‘Oh, oh.’ She gave a little moan. Ian looked for some more pillows to bolster her leg. Nisareen sat where she was. Theo stood up and walked over to the large picture window. He was gazing out at the blackness of the harbour. Or possibly down into the rooms of some of the houses perched lower on the hill. It was hard to tell.
Nathan tapped his pen on the table. ‘Rachel, you were concerned about whether the art work could actually go missing? Any suggestions?’
‘Yeah,’ Theo said. He came back – reluctantly – and took a seat on the couch beside Vita. He leaned over and took one of the custard squares. Lumpy yellow shards sprayed outwards on to the carpet. Paula’s hands fluttered for a moment as if she were about to direct an invisible cleaning force to the spot. There seemed to be a slight struggle within her before her sense of good hostess poise won over.
Theo chewed carefully for a moment. ‘It could,’ he went on. ‘Things are always going missing in art galleries. They keep it quiet. Just get the insurance. The pictures get re-sold on the black market.’
‘Yes. But,’ Ian said, ‘wouldn’t there be video cameras?’
‘What if by the time Maria got within sight of any cameras, there was nothing to see?’ Nathan said. He leaned over and took a piece of custard square.
Paula seemed for a moment to rise in her seat. ‘There are little plates on the sideboard,’ she hissed. ‘For the cakes.’
Nisareen sat squarely in her seat. Rachel looked around. No one was moving. Nathan put the palm of his right hand under the cake. He ate tidily using his left hand to lift the cake. ‘You’ve got a good plot there, Rachel. Now, how about the characters?’
Theo flicked the crumbs off his hands. He appeared to be looking around for somewhere to wipe them on. It was as if he considered the couch itself, then thought better of it and wiped them on his black jeans. ‘Well. You know how she gets accosted by that guy at the hotel. She needs to get her revenge on him. The security manager could follow the guy and beat him up. Leave him for dead. In an alleyway somewhere. Or even better, tied up in some hotel bathroom.’
There was a polite silence.
‘When I think of it, this girl is religious, no?’ Nisareen said. It was a statement, rather than a question. ‘It is not at all nice to talk about her being raped by this man in the hotel. It would be a very bad thing. No man would want to marry her.’ Her voice became stronger. ‘Rachel, I beg you, do not have this. It is not nice for your Maria. Not at all.’
‘Look,’ Rachel said hastily. ‘I am not sure I intended to imply that Maria was actually raped.’ Not little Catholic Maria. Perhaps she could rewrite this. ‘What if another hotel worker came into the bedroom with a noisy squeaky trolley full of plates? He could disturb the man.’
‘No,’ Vita said. She thumped her hand on the arm of the couch. ‘Don’t you see, that’s the whole point. Maria’s a little battler. She’s gone over to London by herself. So why should it be a man who has to rescue her?’ She shot a look of scorn in the direction of at least one of the men in the room. ‘For God’s sake, give the girl some backbone. She needs to protect herself. She saves herself.’ She glared at Ian again. ‘Anyway, I think she’s great.’
‘Thanks,’ Rachel said.
‘I mean it. She’s a fantastic person. Shit, just look at her, taking a nice swipe at all this art snobbery. I love how your story manages to comment on all kinds of things. Like the way cultural referencing and use of language and meaning can be lost on another culture.’
‘You do?’ Rachel said faintly. She wasn’t exactly sure she understood. It seemed that she should be very proud of Maria, this young and poor girl from Mexico. So keen to reinvent herself in the story. And now Vita was even identifying her as a member of the kind of world in which the art critic lived and breathed.
Vita was in full swing now. ‘Look at how she makes the sign of the cross as she steps back from the vases with the pornographic symbols. But make it more current – she should come from Eastern Europe, not Mexico. Make it Poland or Bosnia.’
Paula cleared her throat. ‘Don’t you think Maria is a little too perfect? Wouldn’t it be more believable if she had a few flaws?’
Rachel thought about it. ‘Well, she does lie to her parents about her job. She’s not totally flawless.’
Paula ignored the comment. She held her hand out in the air and checked her creamy painted nails. ‘Another thing.’ She tapped her pen against the copy of the story. ‘This is really about pretences. So, Maria should be in the gallery cleaning and someone that she knows from Mexico comes into the room. And Maria panics and doesn’t want her to know she is a cleaner.’ There was a dramatic pause. ‘And then, on the spot, she has to pretend she is an art student there to study the paintings.’ She beamed at the others. ‘She retrieves her sketch pad from the top of a nearby cleaning trolley.’
‘Yes. Indeed,’ Nathan said thoughtfully. ‘It also helps to ask, what is at the heart of this story?’ He made a squiggle on his copy of the story. ‘Why is Rachel writing it? Why will people care about Maria? Why is she trying to change her life?’
Paula waved her hand as if she were back in the classroom. ‘Personally, I don’t know about you, but the meeting with the homeless boy seems too contrived. It doesn’t get Maria anywhere. The story should be about her reaching out and getting to a new place in life, negotiating a new identity even. The sleeping-bag boy isn’t right for this. Her boss, Glenda, would be a more useful contact. She’s a strong character. She and Maria could become friends.’
No one said anything. It was hard to know whether they were in agreement with Paula or not. Rachel looked over at Nathan. He was nodding sagely. She felt a sudden anger. This was her story and they were trying to take it over. She got up and began collecting the cups and saucers.
Nisareen came with her to the kitchen. ‘That woman,’ she hissed above the noise of the running tap, ‘She does not understand anything.’
Indeed. She felt a sudden surge of gratitude towards her. She hadn’t realised that Nisareen had been following the discussion so carefully. Her understanding of the English language must be more attuned than she had first appreciated.
‘We leave behind a beautiful house in Baghdad.’ She was scrubbing at the cups, bashing them against the tap as she did so.
‘Lovely.’ She looked about for a tea towel.
‘My husband has a very good job. We have a three-storey house, beautiful garden, lovely furniture. We have a wonderful life.’ Ah, clearly not Rachel’s story then.
‘Yes, I am sure,’ she said nervously. She wondered where this was going.
‘I tell you, wonderful. We love Iraq. We are professional people. My father is an accountant.’
‘Paula thinks we were servants.’
‘No, no, I’m sure she doesn’t.’
‘It was a good place. But then the bombings, the unrest. They bomb all around my house.’ She was speaking faster now.
Rachel tried to recall images from the television. People staring aghast at holes in the concrete, places that had once been apartment blocks.
‘Terrible things. I cannot tell you.’
Rachel didn’t know what to say.
Nisareen began to cry. ‘Dreadful things,’ she said now. She stopped for a moment, took a breath. She had picked up a glass to wash. She gripped it tightly. There was a cracking sound as the glass came apart in her hands. Blood began to stream from a gash on the fleshy part of the palm of her left hand. It flowed down into the sink full of water.
Rachel thought she might faint. She had always disliked the sight of blood.
But Nisareen was still crying. Her words were muffled. ‘And it is no longer safe.’ She began to make a keening noise. ‘And these people in New Zealand, they don’t understand. They say you must be lucky to live in our beautiful country, but they don’t understand. My country is beautiful.’
‘Here, hold your hand under the tap,’ Rachel said. She looked helplessly at Nisareen.
‘Can I help?’ A man came into the room. Tall, greying hair, wearing a dark suit.
Rachel pointed to Nisareen’s hand. She could hardly bear to look at it herself. But then she could hardly bear to even look up at her angry red, tear-streaked face.
‘I’m a doctor, let me take a look.’ He took off his suit jacket.
Rachel remembered now. Rodney, Paula’s husband, was some kind of medical specialist. He quickly rolled back the cuffs of his shirt, took Nisareen’s hand, and looked at it closely. ‘We’ll need some bandages. In the bathroom in the hall. First aid kit.’ The little smile he shot Rachel took away the sharpness. She could imagine how it worked on the nurses.
When she returned, Nathan was in the kitchen. Rodney took a small bottle from the first aid box. ‘This will hurt for a moment.’ He poured some liquid on to Nisareen’s hand. She gave an audible gasp. ‘There we go.’ Rachel waited for him to say, ‘All better,’ but he didn’t. He wrapped the bandage around her hand, tied it neatly. ‘Haven’t done one of these in a while. Luckily, the gash wasn’t deep. No need for stitches. But keep it clean for the next few days. Doctor’s orders.’ He smiled. ‘By the way, I’m Rodney, Paula’s husband.’ He looked at Nathan. ‘Perhaps a drink might be in order.’
Rodney murmured something to Nisareen. (He would have a charming bedside manner.) She smiled back at him, calmer now. Rachel felt a faint misgiving. It was as if she had failed Nisareen. It wasn’t about the wound on her hand. She knew that. It was something more important.
Rodney led Nisareen back towards the living room. In the doorway, he paused. ‘An accident with a glass,’ he said.
Paula’s reply could be heard clearly across the room. There was something thin about her voice. ‘So the drinks went on later than expected, did they?’