Winner of the 2011 Hay-on-Wye Short Story Competition.
“Don’t do it! Are you mad?” Sohane seizes Hamza by the forearm. She feels his tendons and muscles tense up as his fist tightens around the handle of the jack knife. “That white bastard…” he growls dangerously under his breath. Sohane looks his brother straight into the red-shot eyes. “No Hamza” she says more softly, “leave him alone! You are only getting into trouble again”.
After the intense heat of the day, the air in the little Parisian park is still barely breathable, even at this late hour. Yes, Sohane had overstepped the boundaries. Hamza had caught her glancing at the young Frenchman on the far bench, furtively, repeatedly. Athletic type. Good looks. Probably one of those boys from that lycée on the other side of the street. “Hey, Jean-Pierre! You coming with us?” But Jean-Pierre was revising for an exam. They’d light-heartedly teased and joked a while and disappeared again. Jean-Pierre… a fine, French name. And Sohane’s eyes had kept returning to the quietly reading boy with the good name, until Hamza had caught her unguarded gaze resting on him for longer than the split-second allowed for just a casual, indifferent look. He had joggled himself up into the old anger that always inhabited him, ready to pounce, and he had discharged at her a salvo of words whose sharp, guttural edges had grated deep into her - Dishonour of the family… Slutty behaviour... Shame… Sohane’s feeble retort had only driven Hamza to one of his uncontrolled, whimsical, dangerous rages against the whole world, and especially the French – and he’d flicked the knife.
Under her sweaty hand Sohane feels the tremor of Hamza’s suppressed anger concentrated in his right forearm. Under the big chestnut trees, darkness is swallowing one by one the line of the five benches with their unfriendly open S-shape that lets each bar dig into the flesh. She knows that she has overstepped what is permitted for a girl like her. After all, as the only boy of the family, Hamza is entrusted with the wardenship of his sister’s honour... but he can be so unpredictable. Sohane shivers. The knife in his hand, the darkness, the deep furrow of hatred between his charcoal eyes - and the French boy just a few metres away. Still holding back Hamza’s arm, Sohane risks a quick glance over. The boy has closed his folder and put his earphones on. His eyes are closed. Behind the trees a passing bus shoots an aggressive horn at some unruly pedestrian crossing by red. Sohane holds tighter. At last she feels the muscle soften and the tendons recoil inside the flesh. Only then does she release her grip, leaving a dark red mark on the brown skin. Slowly, grudgingly, Hamza folds the blade back into its handle. “Come on, let’s go home” is all he can say, a vanquished tiger’s raspy growl.
A sudden gust of wind plucks up some heat-dried leaves from the chestnut tree above their heads, lets them flutter hesitantly in the dense hot air before allowing them to land at their feet. “Oh, come on Sohane!” Hamza’s voice now quivers with impatience. The clammy jeans stick to her skin as she slowly gets up and starts to walk. To reach the little metal gate at the end of the path, now vaguely lit by a flimsy street lamp, they must pass Hamza’s intended victim. Will Hamza keep calm? Sohane’s heart beats double speed. The French boy’s pose on the torturous bench is surprisingly relaxed, as if he does not feel the unevenly curved grate prodding into his back – at any rate he is blissfully unaware of the danger brushing just past him. Nor does he recognise the approach of his guardian angel. Angels?! No such thing! Whatever next…
At each step they take on the gravel path, the gritty sound of Hamza’s sneaker soles mingles rythmically with the tapping of Sohane’s sweaty feet sticking onto her plastic flip-flops. Step – Tack – Step –Tack – and-the-crazy-beat-of-her-heart – Step - Tack... Warning drums in the desert. Surely he must hear them coming? Reflected in the light of the lamp, his immaculate Nike trainers make two starkly white shapes as they stamp some mysterious rhythm into the dust. Sohane perceives muffled jazz music. She looks at him intensely. Kind face, soft eyelashes, like a girl’s, brown hair, long and wavy. Two strands dance on his forehead to the swaying of his head rocked along by the jazz devil in his ear. His green Benetton T-shirt loosely touches his slender, muscular torso... Step - Tack… for one infinite, delicious second her gaze envelops his face, his body, his hair, his pose at ease on the treacherous bench, as if he offered himself whole to some goddess. At that moment, Jean-Pierre looks up. Sohane quickly averts her eyes.
The little gate clanks shut and Jean-Pierre remains alone in the park, with the music and the split-second image of the young girl that just passed him. Arabic features, ripped jeans, probably one of these girls from the banlieues north of Paris. The vision lingers on, it remains stuck to his mind, it demands recognition. Reluctantly, Jean-Pierre lets it settle in a corner of his sub-conscience, where it grapples for a moment with the solo saxophone. A fierce, complex rythm, soon perturbed by the girl’s brown, oval face, the shine of the lamp on her raven hair and the tapping of her feet against the plastic flip-flops… With one flick of his fringe he dismisses her, but the diabolical tempo of the pianist now conjures up instead whiffs of hideous ghetto cités, pockmarked estates, troublesome neighbourhoods, burnt cars, unwarranted acts of violence, gang warfare in which even the police does not dare intervene. Like the jingle of puzzles pieces thrown into the air, scraps of an essay flash past him that Jean-Pierre had written about the integration - or lack of - of Algerian immigrants into French society. The drum solo beats itself into a cleverly controlled climax, the fine hair of his suntanned forearms stand on end… The girl did have beautiful eyes. Held in place by all four musicians, an endlessly drawn out fortissimo note is abruptly whacked to a halt by one last mighty beat on the drum. Numbed by the music, the residual warmth of the air and the little bit too much alcohol in his veins from his earlier bistro round, Jean-Pierre rips off his ear phones. He safely buries music, girl vision and all two strata down his conscience and exposes his senses to the eerie silence of the park. “It’s so dark here, it must be late” - the little boy inside him does not much like the dark, and all of a sudden he is grabbed by a compelling surge of longing for the soft white pillow on his bed – the bed in his airconditioned room – the room in his white luxury mansion – his home in the middle of the plush, clean eighth arrondissement. He also wishes for the paracetamol in the cupboard which will relieve the headache he already feels coming. He gets up and walks away – leaving the malicious, fretful little wind of the summer night to play harp with the bars of the benches.
“Where’s Hamza”. “I don’t know”. Sohane’s mother sighs and pauses a moment looking vaguely out of the kitchen window. The blocks of flat of the Cité Soubise are outwardly quiet, but she knows that the quotidian turpitudes that make the usual banlieues headlines in the media are at work underneath the cité’s cracked grey skin. She takes out a little knife and with quick, expert strokes slices through the carrot. “Couscous tonight for dinner, Sohane”. Then, under her breath she mutters “What is that boy up to this time?” Sohane jumps at the chance offered to her. She wants, no she needs to go out, to escape for a few hours, to dream a little. For once she will skip the oppressive, obligatory male accompaniment imposed by her mother. “It’s for your own good, for your safety”. The usual refrain. “You know how they lay in wait for you, loitering near the lift or at the front door. Remember what happened to your friend Fatima”… Sohane remembers only too well. When the boys of the Cité have drunk or smoked, they start to heckle and taunt the girls.Then they hurl insults, call them names… sometimes bad things happen. Sohane looks at her mother, the irregular pattern of grease stains on the walls, the washing outside flapping like birds caught by the wing, all these hated bars of her cage. She boldens up. “It’s for the job, Mother” she lies. “I have to go and speak with that woman from the office of social affairs…” A job? a joke rather. Bad school results, no skill, no money. An Arabic sounding name. The social worker had not given her any hope. Why bother? The mother quickly looks up, but says nothing. Sohane grabs her bag and nearly runs to the door before she should change her mind.
On the bench where the French boy had sat, a young woman says something funny to her boyfriend and he bursts out in laughter. Sohane pretends to read the free newspaper she had found on her seat in the underground, but all her senses are on alert. Jean-Pierre… His relaxed demeanour, his green T-shirt, his music… imprinted on the surface of her memory his velvet face lays like a caress. Above her head the chestnut leaves rustle, like the other night. Her heart thumps out of control. What is she hoping for? He has barely looked at her, and for him she is surely just one of these meuf des banlieues? This abyss between both their worlds, no magic wand is powerful enough to make it vanish. Pressed through her thin black polyester jacket the torture bars push into her back. Around her flip-flops lie many cigarette stubs and an empty package with “smoking kills” written in big black letters on it. She feels heady. The powerful scent of the lime trees in full blossom maybe? Will he come again? What will she do if he does, if he looks at her? She hopes he does not come. On his bench, the couple now hold each other in a long, intense kiss. Sohane looks away.
At that moment, the little green metal door claps shut. Steps on the path, and the drum beat of her heart soars into a wild firefly dance of longing, fear, dispair and hope again. Jean-Pierre is back. Jean-Pierre is not alone. His hand holds another hand. At the end of the hand there is a body resplendent with impeccable, contemporary, blond l’Oreal beauty. The wind strums at the bars, the bus hoots at the pedestrians and the dead chestnut leaves crunch under the couple’s healthy, self-contented step. But Sohane does not hear any of this any more. Her bench is empty.
The diesel smell from the busses loaded to the brim, the flow of people on the pavement going nowhere, the aggressive honks of cars at the back of the queue by the traffic lights, the gummy white noise of conversations and mobile phone tunes, the syruppy crowd of perspiring bodies pressed together as they flow down the dirty concrete steps of the metro, the backs of many heads bobbing and swaying with each step, the toxic smells of cheap perfume, unwashed hair, stale urine from the corridors and musty air breathed out, in, and out again from a thousand unknown lungs on the platform. And one black polyester jacket, dissolving in the shapeless human mass.