'EARTHLING'

This story was originally published in Kwani? Magazine. Photo copyright © Sally Mann.

EARTHLING

BY DIRIYE OSMAN

After being discharged from the Maudsley Mental Hospital, Zeytun went to her local internet café to spy on her sister Hamdi’s Facebook profile. The café was located at the bottom of Peckham Rye.  A bad paint job meant that the walls looked like they had been plastered with puke. The Somali man at the counter was startled by her appearance. She was wearing a housecoat with holes in it and over-sized loafers. Even though her face belonged to a woman in her mid-twenties, her long, scraggly hair was white. She slapped a 50p coin on the counter.

‘Thirty minutes,’ she said in Somali.

‘Inna lillah!’ the shopkeeper muttered to himself. Zeytun ignored him and removed a can of Shaani from the fridge.

‘That’ll be 50p,’ said the shopkeeper. Zeytun grudgingly produced the change. She opened the can and guzzled the drink.

‘Slow down,said the man as he handed her the computer-code. ‘You’ll get brain freeze.’

Zeytun snatched the paper from him. ‘I already have brain freeze.’

‘Are you okay?’ asked the man. ‘You’re safe here, you know?  No one will hurt you.’

But Zeytun had already moved across the crowded room to find a computer. She felt uneasy as soon as she sat down. A Nigerian woman beside her was talking on Skype:  ‘Yes my darling…no, this smelly Somali lesbian is sitting next to me…Yes, the sermon was fantastic…yes, it is a shame but dykes are such nasty creatures. Adetoun talked to the pastor afterwards…hell, that’s where you’re headed, you dirty bitch. The pastor was wonderfully insightful and of course, lesbians are nothing but cheap whores.’

Zeytun wanted to punch the woman. She knew she was hallucinating, but that did not make the experience any less hurtful or real.

She looked around to see if her girlfriend Mari had followed her. After Mari had picked her up from the hospital Zeytun had told her that she wanted to go for a walk. She knew Mari would panic if she discovered that Zeytun had gone to an Internet café. Zeytun understood Mari’s reasons for disconnecting their home broadband but she was still resentful. Zeytun loved being connected to the wider world, to feast on Facebook. She loved all this even though the Internet had almost killed her. She remembered trawling through dangerous websites, sweating with fear and excitement at the idea of taking her own life. She had played Me’shell Ndegeocello’s ‘Comfort Woman’, the album that she and Mari often made love to, and planned her self-extinction. Ndegeocello’s space-age soul hymn to the power of loving another woman had been their anthem, but now neither Zeytun nor Mari could listen to that album without remembering that time.

The Nigerian woman finished her call and left.  Zeytun heaved a sigh of relief and logged on to her Facebook page. Her inbox was filled with emails, mostly from well-wishing friends, none from her sister, Hamdi. Zeytun didn’t bother reading the emails.  All she wanted was to see what was happening with Hamdi. She went on Hamdi’s page and saw her face for the first time in six months. They hadn’t spoken since their fight.

It was summer and they were both cooling themselves off with a glass of cold Vimto in Hamdi’s council flat in Shepherd’s Bush. There had been a mice infestation: because the building was falling apart they had crawled in through every crevice. Hamdi had had pest control in repeatedly but the mice always returned. So Zeytun took some time off from her photographic assignments and came down to Hamdi’s armed with a king-size bottle of rat poison and a big baseball-bat.

‘We’re going to merk these muthafuckers,’ she said mischievously, and of course they laughed about the ridiculousness of the situation. Hamdi was scared of killing the mice but Zeytun relished it. She opened Hamdi’s storage cupboard, which had been unused for the two years that she had lived in that flat, and discovered a horde of mice, some heavily pregnant. Zeytun mercilessly killed every single one she could target and soon most of the pregnant ones, which had been slower than the others, were dead.

‘Zeytun, those were mothers,’ said Hamdi sadly as her sister scraped the tiny mashed corpses up with the dustpan and tipped them into the bin.

‘Yes, but they were also pure wasakh. Did you want to keep them?’

‘No.’

‘Then I guess that’s that.’

‘Haki, only a lezzo could be so hardboiled!’

‘Yes, but look at how desperate you are for this hardboiled lezzo’s help!’

‘Touché.’

At the time both Zeytun and Hamdi had embarked on new relationships, Zeytun with Mari and Hamdi with a traditional man from their clan called Libaan, and there was a genuine sense of shared joy between the two sisters. Hamdi had never met Mari and was quite surprised when Zeytun told her that she was half Somali-half Japanese. Even though Hamdi was still getting used to the idea of having a lesbian sister, she was supportive. Her new boyfriend, however, took a dim view. Two women ‘fornicating’ was unnatural and repulsive, not to mention ‘haram.’ At first, Hamdi was angry that Libaan was reacting this way about her sister. But she was also desperate to get married. She was twenty-nine and, since she viewed herself through a traditional Somali lens, practically an old maid.

Libaan gave Hamdi an ultimatum: she had to choose between him and Zeytun.  Zeytun was hearing voices in her head and it was the beginning of another descent into painful psychosis for her. Hamdi made her choice: Libaan.

She then took a distinctly puritanical stance when she told Zeytun her decision.

‘It’s haram, Zey. It’s against our beliefs.’

‘No! It’s against your beliefs! Anyway, you’re only saying that to justify choosing him over me! I didn’t choose to be a lesbian. Life is hard enough as it is. If Mari had given me such an ultimatum, I’d have told her to fuck off!’

‘Well, I’m not you and I never will be.’

Zeytun started upstairs to pack her belongings. Determined to have the last word, she shouted, ‘I love Mari because she makes me happy. You love Libaan because he validates you.  I’m glad I’m not you. Have a nice life!’

All those painful memories flooded back now as Zeytun gazed at Hamdi’s Facebook pictures. They all showed Hamdi smiling. Here she was with her friends at a party, wearing a turquoise hijab, gold tooth glinting. Here she was in the arms of Libaan, who had a cigarette in the corner of his mouth - a habit Hamdi hated. Libaan stared at the camera with a territorial look, as if to say, ‘She’s mine.’ Another picture was set in Hamdi’s kitchen and she looked content bent over the stove cooking suqaar, presumably for Libaan. Ever since she was little Hamdi had wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother whereas Zeytun had dreamt of becoming a photographer and being out in the world, capturing it all without restraint. Zeytun used to take countless pictures of Hamdi on her Nikon camera: Hamdi had been her muse. She hadn’t picked up her camera since she stopped speaking to Hamdi and she didn’t think she could now: her confidence was gone.

She glanced once more at the photographs on the computer. Each one portrayed Hamdi as a woman satisfied with her life. Zeytun scrutinised the images for traces of melancholy, a mirroring of the loss she felt, but found none.

There were 197 photos of friends, relatives, the fiancée, colleagues, and acquaintances in Hamdi’s profile. None of them included Zeytun. She logged out and left the café.

***

As she walked from Peckham Rye towards her house in Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, Zeytun kept her headphones clamped to her head and blasted music on her iPod. The voices were coming from everywhere. She could hear insults from old women in cars even though their windows were shut. She could make out murder threats, but who were they coming from? The pedestrians on the street? The starlings and crows wheeling above the dove-grey clouds? The Dalmatians and Labradors in the park, whose barks were encoded taunts aimed solely at her? The loud breathing of joggers brushing past her became wilfully pornographic and disgusting; a black teenage boy chirpsing a shy, pretty girl was plotting her rape and subsequent dismemberment, and then Zeytun’s. What frightened Zeytun was that, even with her music blotting out the sounds, she could still read these people’s lips. Their abuse had a psychotic intensity. They were insane.  They didn’t even know her. Why would they attack her so randomly? For being a lesbian?  Did she look that butch?  Was there a mark upon her forehead that disclosed her sexuality? Please stop, she wanted to scream. But instead the voices multiplied into a hostile chorus. Suddenly the fact she was a lesbian was no longer the only issue. There were now new insults to deal with:

‘An ugly beggar,’

‘Hamdi was right about you. You are pure muck.’

‘Ohmigod, she’s going to pick up a cigarette butt from the ground and smoke it. Go on smoke it, tramp.

‘She probably has venereal diseases. Yuck!’

‘Ugh! She’s pissed herself.’ Horrified, Zeytun touched her crotch to see if this was true. It wasn’t. ‘Psych!’ laughed the voices. ‘You’re one dumb bitch!’

Determined not to be defeated, Zeytun cranked up the volume on her iPod and walked faster along East Dulwich road. As she neared her house, her heart beat faster. She was nearly at the finishing line, which was also, somehow, the moment of most extreme danger, the last possible place the inevitable assault would come. She resisted the temptation to run because running might be a trigger as it was with certain wild animals. I’m not afraid, she repeated to herself, although she was. She wanted to run into the house and slam the door behind her. But she knew she was being watched. She wasn’t sure by whom, but she knew. There were spies everywhere. Even the squirrels in the trees were suspects. She laughed a little uneasily at the thought. When she reached her front steps, she couldn’t take the anxiety anymore so she ran up to the door, and fumbled frantically with the keys. When she finally got it open she hurried inside but closed it quietly behind her.

She was greeted by the comforting aroma of cinnamon and coriander. Afraid to switch off her iPod in case the voices returned, instead she pressed pause and pricked up her ears. Though she could still hear the voices trying to get through her front door there were no abusive taunts coming from inside the house. She sighed with relief. Why didn’t the voices follow her inside? It was unnerving not knowing when they would strike next.

She walked slowly through the hallway and into the kitchen. Steam hit her face, warm and damp. Mari’s back was turned to her and she was swaying her hips gently to the sound of Maryam Mursal on the watermelon-shaped stereo. She was humming to the song as she sliced tomatoes. She danced in such an innocently sensuous way that Zeytun simply stood there and watched her. She is the reason the voices can’t attack me here, thought Zeytun. The house was not the sanctuary, Mari was. Her shoulder-length braids had seashells in them and when she moved her head the shells clacked against each other. She was wearing an orange guntino, a traditional Somali wrap-around dress that had to be created daily by the wearer.  It was this improvisational essence, and the fact the dress symbolized Somaliness, which appealed to Mari. Her mother Kinsi was Somali and her father, Natsume was Japanese. They had met in Kenya in the late seventies and divorced shortly after Mari was born, so she never knew her father. It was Kinsi who had raised her and schooled her on Somali culture. It was ironic that even though Zeytun was born in Somalia and fully Somali, Mari, who had never been to the country and was mixed-race, appreciated Somali culture more than she did. In fact, Mari identified wholly with Somaliness and referred to herself as a Somali, denying her Japanese heritage altogether.

One time Zeytun had bought her a beautiful silk Japanese print of cherry blossoms. Mari smiled graciously and hung the picture in the guest bedroom.

Now Zeytun crept up behind her and delicately caressed her braids. Mari did a double-take and squealed.

‘You scared the shit out of me,’ she said trying to regain her breath. ‘I was about to shank you one-time.’

‘I’m sorry, hon, didn’t mean to startle you.’

‘Is alright,’ Mari said uneasily. ‘If you had been an intruder, I’d have served your guts for supper. With a bottle of Chianti and some fava beans.’

‘It’s lucky we’re out of fava beans.’

‘Oh, I’d have made it work. I’d have stewed those guts so deliciously you’d literally be licking your fingers. Trust, I can throw down in the kitchen.’

‘And in the bedroom, on the dining table, on the carpet. You’re a regular freak-a-leak.’

‘What can I say? I’m a black Belle de Jour. Reading that tat actually gives me prostitution envy. I resent my mother for teaching me that my vagina is not a commodity.’

They laughed at this and Zeytun realized it was the first time she had laughed in months. The sound came loose and free. It reminded her of why she fell in love with Mari. Mari was warm, gentle. She had the ability to turn even the most gruesome event into a comic riff. The only thing she never joked about was Zeytun’s illness, although Zeytun would have preferred it if she did.

Are you hungry, macaan? Dinner will be ready soon. Just help yourself to a mango.’

‘I could murder a mango,’ said Zeytun, reaching for the fruit basket on the counter, ‘mango with chili and lemon.’

‘Sort yourself out, sugar mama. Mangia, mangia.’

Zeytun grabbed a mango and lemon. She opened the utensils drawer to retrieve a knife but there were none inside. There were no forks either. All that was inside were some tablespoons.

‘Where’re all the knives?’ she asked.

‘Oh, don’t worry I’ll cut this for you,’ said Mari, taking the fruit from Zeytun’s hand.

‘What happened to all our knives and forks?’ asked Zeytun, even though she knew the answer. Mari looked away from her and said, ‘We have to be careful.’

They stood in silence for a moment. Zeytun turned away and left the kitchen.

‘Don’t you want your fruit?’ Mari called after her.

‘I’ve lost my appetite.’ She went into the living room and sat on the sofa. It was old, and creaked heavily as she sank into it. She closed her eyes. She remembered the knife incident. She remembered the frightened expression on Mari’s face that night.  She remembered the nausea and fear she felt as she lay on their bed, knife in hand, waiting to strike.

It was five weeks earlier. Mari had arranged a weekend break from the hospital for Zeytun. She had just changed medication and was recovering gradually. The previous medication had caused her to develop Parkinsonism, leading to tremors and an unstable posture. Once, the muscles in her arms and legs tightened and bent her into a painful, pretzel shape like a contortionist. She had had to take Procyclidine to combat the side-effects of the antipsychotic. Her doctors then put her on a 50mg Risperadone depot, which was injected into her buttocks every fortnight. The new medication calmed her down and reduced the voices significantly.

Noticing the difference the medication was making, Mari took a chance and brought her home for a relaxing weekend. They stayed in and watched ‘All About Eve’, an old favourite of Mari’s, and ‘High Art’, a dark lesbian romance which Zeytun loved. They ate, laughed and made mad love. At the end of the weekend though, the hallucinations returned. Zeytun heard Mari sharpening a knife in the kitchen and thought she was trying to kill her. Sweating heavily, she strode into the kitchen where Mari was slicing a leg of lamb, opened the utensils drawer and removed a bread-knife.

‘Zeytun, what’re you doing?’ asked Mari, alarmed.

‘You’re not going to kill me!’ Zeytun screamed and ran off into their bedroom, leaving Mari visibly shaken. She locked the bedroom door and went and sat on the bed, ready to defend herself. She waited and waited for Mari to come into the bedroom but she never did. After a long night of waiting, Zeytun finally dozed off, the knife still in her hand.

In the morning, she was awoken by a knock on the door.

‘Zeytun, its Edo Kinsi. Open the door, hon.’

Could Mari’s mother be trusted?

‘I just want to talk to you, sweetheart.’

Zeytun wasn’t convinced. She groped about for the knife where it had fallen to the floor.  ‘Stand back,’ she called.  Then she opened the door. Kinsi looked tired. Her eyes were red and her nappy Afro was not covered up in a hijab like it usually was. She was wearing a long denim skirt and a green cardigan. Between her eyebrows was a faded tattoo of a Japanese character.

‘Edo, I thought you were doing well. Mari was so excited to have you home. What happened?’

‘She’s trying to kill me,’ muttered Zeytun, ‘Please don’t let her kill me.’

‘Zey, Mari loves you. She’d never hurt you. She’s worried sick about you.’  Kinsi’s eyes went to the knife in Zeytun’s hand.  ‘She didn’t want to call the hospital because she was afraid they’d section you for longer. At the same time, she didn’t know if you were going to harm yourself. That girl is crazy about you.’

Zeytun sat on the bed and whispered, ‘I’m afraid of losing her.’

‘You won’t lose her,’ promised Kinsi. ‘You just need to concentrate on getting better.’

It was Kinsi who drove her back to the Maudsley. Mari sat in the passenger seat, staring out into the ash-grey sky. Zeytun sat in the back, listening to her iPod, trying to drown out the voices. She hallucinated that she was naked so she tried to cover her vagina with her hands. Snap! Pop! Her clothes were back on but her face burned with shame.

When they reached the ward Kinsi waited in the reception area while Mari went in with Zeytun to speak to her consultant, Dr. Feldman. He questioned Mari about Zeytun.

‘Did you guys have a good weekend?’ he asked, scribbling on his notepad.

‘Yes,’ said Mari. Her voice was shaky. ‘We had a great time.’

‘Were they any changes to Zeytun’s behaviour?’

‘No, she was excellent. I loved every minute of it.’ Mari bit her lip and, for a moment, Zeytun thought she was going to tell the doctor the truth. If so, Zeytun would be sectioned for the winter. She started sweating. Mari looked at her for the first time that day. Her eyes were moist, her lips dry. Zeytun realized that Mari’s gaze betrayed something less noble than love: pity.

***

The dream tasted as sweet as halwa. Zeytun and Hamdi were young girls. Their mother Roda was driving them to ‘Splash!’ the water-park in Nairobi. They giggled loudly in the back of the car and played rock-paper-scissors. For some reason, Zeytun always chose paper and Hamdi scissors. ‘Not fair!’ squealed Zeytun, tugging at her pig-tails. Hamdi’s hair, which was long and silky, was tied back into a tight bun. ‘Nya-nya-boo-boo, you’ve lost again!’

‘Hooyo,’ said Zeytun, ‘Hamdi is not playing fair!’

‘Girls, you better act right,’ said Roda, looking in the rear-view mirror. ‘Otherwise we’re heading right back home.’ This made the games stop completely. Roda smiled and steered the Peugeot down the pot-holed road towards ‘Splash!’

Once they were inside the amusement park, they got out of the car and headed for the changing-room. Young girls and boys in swimsuits milled about with their mothers. Zeytun’s swimsuit was brown and yellow with cheap plastic sunflowers stitched across the neckline. Hamdi, on the other hand, had insisted on a lavender Adidas piece that had cost their mother nearly half her monthly wages. Roda worked as a pediatric nurse in Kenyatta Hospital and money was tight. But she still managed to treat her daughters to ‘Splash!’ or a meal at ‘Steers’ every once in a while.

There were two large slides in the park: an open white one and a closed red one. The white slide was not as steep.

‘Let’s go on the red one,’ said Hamdi, as they joined the queue.

‘Hayaye! I’m scared,’ said Zeytun. It was Hamdi who had been the fearless one as a child: as they got older Zeytun became bolder.

‘We’ll do it together,’ said Hamdi, holding her hand. ‘Walaahi, I’ll protect you.’

Zeytun reluctantly acquiesced. So they held onto each other at the top of the slide. ‘Don’t let go,’ said Zeytun. ‘I promise not to,’ said Hamdi, kissing her.

Off they went, squealing, zigging and zagging down the slide before plunging into a small pool at the other end. Roda, camera at the ready, snapped away like crazy. The girls hugged and posed for pictures. As they did this, Zeytun whispered to Hamdi, ‘I really need to pee.’

‘Me too,’ giggled Hamdi. ‘Let’s just do it in the pool.’

‘Ew,’ said Zeytun, ‘That’s niggedy-nasty.’

‘I’ll do it if you will,’ said Hamdi, eyes glinting.

Roda was still obliviously taking pictures of them. They tried to look inconspicuous. Slowly, a small yellow circle formed around them in the pool. Roda stopped taking pictures and stared at them in disbelief.

‘Nacalad baa nigutaalo! Get the hell out of there, you dirty little brats. Akhas! How could you do that? Wait until I catch you and strangle you.’

But by then the girls had leapt out the pool and were running back up the stairs to the slides, to do it all over again.

‘Zeytun! Zeytun!’ her mother called. But it wasn’t her mother’s voice. It belonged to someone equally familiar.

‘Zeytun, wake up!’  It was Mari, shaking her out of bed. Zeytun opened her eyes and felt dampness between her thighs. She quickly got out of bed and realized she had wet herself.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Mari with forced brightness, ‘it’s probably the medication. Hop into the shower and get yourself cleaned up.  I’ll change the sheets.’

Zeytun removed her bra and sodden Bugs Bunny boxers and went into the bathroom. As she turned on the shower, she couldn’t help smiling at the deliciousness of the dream.

***

Zeytun woke to the sound of something scratching at her bedroom window. She pulled the curtains and saw the words ‘DYKE CUNT’ trying to break the glass. It was like a macabre cartoon. I’m not afraid, she had to remind herself, although that didn’t reassure her much. She tip-toed downstairs into the kitchen and noticed a note attached to the fridge. It read:

Hey lover,

Just popped to the café for a few hours. There’s buttered pancakes on the counter as well as your Risperadone tablet. Please eat and take your meds. Will be back by lunchtime. Call me if you need anything.

Love you.

Mx

Zeytun made some ginger tea and took the plate of pancakes out to the patio. Before she began to eat she rolled a cigarette, which she puffed on between mouthfuls of pancake. There was nothing more satisfying than smoking and eating at the same time.

It was the end of the summer, she had just moved in with Mari, she wasn’t speaking to Hamdi, and the psychosis had paralyzed her. She couldn’t sleep or eat. She would often get up in the middle of the night, sit out on the patio and smoke until sunrise. She started dreaming of death. It seemed like a relief. She went on a website that listed every possible method for killing oneself. Some methods were conventional (such as sleeping pills with alcohol), while others were bizarre (drinking gallons of water until all the salt in your system was washed out). It was through this site that Zeytun first learned about death by tobacco. For some reason she found the idea funny.  Also it involved just a few household ingredients.  She wrote down the recipe and went to work. She had to do it at a time when Mari was at the café. She bought 25g of Old Holborn tobacco and boiled some water. She then poured the tobacco and hot water in a cup and left it to ferment for a day, then strained the results. The following evening, while Mari was out working, Zeytun put on clean underwear and played Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s ‘Comfort Woman’. There were no tears, just a sense of finality. By now, the tobacco had become pure poison and it looked like treacle. Its taste was spectacularly bitter.  She chased it down with a shot of brandy and went to bed.

The next thing she saw were bright lights and she thought, I’m in heaven. In fact, she was at the A&E in King’s College Hospital about to have her stomach pumped. Mari cried and Zeytun felt sorry for her. As soon as her stomach was pumped she was sectioned at the Maudsley Mental Hospital.

She didn’t like to think of that period and neither did Mari. Still smoking, she carried her plate back into the house and took her medication. She could feel the voices getting less noisy and she knew that if she took her tablets consistently for a few more weeks they might disappear completely. She couldn’t wait for that day. The voices interfered with her thoughts, made her barely able to function. Some days she felt like she had no personality. But Mari reassured her it was the trauma of the illness that made her feel this way, and not some interior lack.

She went upstairs to her bedroom and pulled her suitcase of photographs from under the bed. As she unzipped it the first picture her eyes landed on was the one when she was a child peeing in the ‘Splash!’ pool with Hamdi. Their expressions were conspiratorial and they looked cheekily at the camera. The next picture had been taken on Hamdi’s eighteenth birthday and she was wearing a red hijab with gardenias. Zeytun’s hair was black back then, and as Hamdi blew out her candles Zeytun had planted a kiss on her cheek. She felt a tug at her chest as she looked at these photographs. There were many of Hamdi posing for Zeytun. Hamdi didn’t enjoy being photographed but she trusted Zeytun enough to let her photograph her repeatedly. There were photos of them with their mother, Roda, smiling and looking satisfied. Then there were the series of painful portraits that Zeytun had done when Roda was undergoing chemotherapy for cervical cancer. The black and white pictures showed their mother with her hair falling out, looking gaunt and slightly bemused by all the fuss. She had raised them by herself after their father, Omar, a journalist for the BBC, had been kidnapped and then killed in Somalia. Roda had died in Kenya, two years before Zeytun and Hamdi were sponsored by an uncle to move to London. Whilst Hamdi coped well, Zeytun disintegrated and lost her grip on reality. That was the beginning of her psychosis.

She wanted to cry as she stared at these photos but she couldn’t. She stuffed them back into the suitcase and zipped it up. She then grabbed her camera and her iPod and left the house.

***

Nunhead Cemetery was one of the most beautiful and gothic cemeteries in London. At night it looked eerie, but during the day mothers would push their prams along the graveled paths and joggers would run about as if it was any public park. Some days there were funfairs on the grounds. Children would eat ice cream whilst their parents lolled about a few metres away from the graves. There would be booksellers and car-boot sales. The descendants of the dead would pay tribute to their loved ones while taking their dogs out for a walk.

Zeytun loved this cemetery. Even though she was a Muslim she often came here to mourn for her mother. There were crosses everywhere but she didn’t care. In fact, she felt at peace with herself in this place. She took her camera and snapped pictures of the gravestones, of old dog bones, of joggers and lovers. She felt a thrill at having a camera in her hand. It was like holding the body of a lover. She snapped away and, in her concentration, found brief respite from her psychosis.

***

After visiting the cemetery Zeytun snuck off to the internet café on Peckham Rye. She bought a can of Shaani and sat in the farthest corner of the café, playing Cassandra Wilson’s ‘Thunderbird’ loudly on her iPod. With the music so loud, she thought, at least these people won’t invade my thoughts. She felt tense and rigid as she logged on to her Facebook page. Her heart started pumping. What if there was a message from Hamdi? She could only hope.

There were no emails from Hamdi but there was a strange status update. It read:

‘Walapa walapa.

So the wedding is two Saturdays from now and it’ll be at Woolwich Town Hall. For those of you who haven’t received an invite, consider this your invite.

Love,

Hamdi

Zeytun felt like she had been punched. It had been a given that she would be a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding but now she had to find out about it through Facebook? She wanted to smash the computer screen. Instead, she got up and fled the café as a chorus of voices screamed, ‘you’re the silliest, dirtiest putta. Fucking die!’

***

It was after making love that night that Zeytun decided to tell Mari about Hamdi’s wedding. Mari sighed and spooned Zeytun, wrapping her arms around her breasts. ‘I think you should go,’ said Mari. ‘Hamdi might have acted shadily but she’s your sister and you two have been through a lot together.’

‘She won’t answer the phone to me.’

‘Go to the wedding. Talk to her then.’

‘It could get really awkward.’

‘I think she’s as miserable without you as you are without her. Scope the situation. I’ll drive you down there and wait in the car while you talk to her.’

‘I’m really nervous, hon.’

‘It’ll give you peace of mind to know that you’ve tried. Give it a shot. In fact, come down to the café tomorrow and paint a plate for her.’

‘You think?’

‘I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.’

‘You’re such a sweetheart,’ said Zeytun, kissing her on the lips.

***

Mari’s café was a combined ceramics café and art studio on the corner of Lordship Lane and it was called ‘Earthling.’ Mari usually made the ceramics herself and they ranged from small piggy banks to ornate pots and calabashes to mugs shaped like cartoon monsters. She made the ceramics and the mostly well-to-do customers paid to paint them. After they had finished painting them she would glaze the pieces and fire them. Sometimes mothers came in and had their babies’ fingerprints imprinted on plates as keepsakes. Whilst the customers unleashed their inner artists Mari would serve them an assortment of teas, home-baked fudge cakes and key lime pie. It was during a random visit to ‘Earthling’ that Zeytun had first met Mari. They had hit it off immediately and after two weeks of intense conversations, had had equally intense sex. One night, Zeytun asked Mari, ‘Why did you call your café ‘Earthling’?’

‘Earthling’ was actually Victorian slang for lesbian.’

‘So I can stop referring to myself as a lesbian now and say I’m an earthling.’

‘It certainly gives it a dope flavour.’

‘Bella.’

‘Extra bella.’

Zeytun arrived just as a table of four women were leaving. At a neighbouring table, Kinsi was doing the accounts. It was Mari who came up with the concept for the café and Kinsi who bankrolled it.

‘Zey,’ smiled Kinsi getting up and giving her a kiss on the cheek. ‘You look really well.’

‘I feel better, Edo,’ said Zeytun, ‘I’m not hearing too many voices now, although I still have to keep my iPod on standby.’

‘Can I tempt you with a cuppa?’ Kinsi asked. ‘I’m not talking about the muck Mari serves in this place but some ginger shaax.’

‘My body is calling for some shaax. Grazie Edo.’

Whilst Kinsi was making the tea, Mari emerged from the studio. She was wearing a yellow dirac, a transparent Somali dress with petticoat. She removed her apron and kissed Zeytun on the lips.

‘Are you ready to get your paint on?’

‘I was thinking of that beautiful calabash,’ said Zeytun, pointing to it on the shelf.

‘You have a good eye, mademoiselle. That’s my piece de resistance,’ said Mari handing her the calabash.

‘How much do I owe you for it, baby?’

‘A lifetime of uninterrupted sex.’

‘You girls are so nasty’ said Kinsi walking over with a pot of tea and three mugs. ‘Is that what all lesbians do? Talk of sex?’

‘You’re right Hooyo,’ smiled Mari, ‘we do apologize. And yes, all lesbians do is talk about sex.’

Even Kinsi couldn’t help smiling at that. ‘Nasty-nasty.’ She set the pot and mugs down and pulled up a chair. Zeytun told her about Hamdi’s impending wedding and the fact that she was attending it.

‘I think she should have told you about the wedding,’ said Kinsi, ‘but I also think she’s very scared of being rejected by you. She acted foolishly. But I know your sister is praying that you will attend the wedding.’

‘But what will I say to her? I’m dreading seeing her.’

‘Zey, you have to remember that whatever she said, Hamdi did not push you away because of a man. The man was merely social acceptance made manifest. Hamdi always wanted that, you didn’t. I think you should feel sorry for her because while you’re moving on with your life, with a partner that loves you completely, she’s getting into a marriage where she has to leave half of herself at the door. That’s no way to live. So despite your illness, she has it much tougher than you.’

‘Also,’ chimed in Mari, handing paints to Zeytun, ‘she must be miserable planning this wedding alone.’

Zeytun thought about this. She dipped a brush in the paint and worked on the calabash, determined that it should be a thing of beauty, in colours so harmonious they would heal any rift.

***

It was the night of the wedding, and Zeytun and Mari were driving down to Woolwich Town Hall. Mari had straightened Zeytun’s white hair and tied it into a long plait. ‘You look as regal as Toni Morrison,’ said Mari, kissing her lips.

‘I don’t feel as wise though.’

‘Even Toni has it tough sometimes.’

‘Hmm.’

Zeytun wore a charcoal-grey trouser-suit.  She had sprayed herself with Suredeodorant, and Mari had insisted that she at least dab some Dior perfume on her neck for the occasion. Zeytun had relented. So here they were, driving to the venue. Zeytun felt she might throw up. Mari on the other hand kept her composure. She was dressed appropriately for the occasion even though she wasn’t going inside the reception. She wore a shimmering turquoise dirac with gold stitching that made her look like a mermaid, and around her neck a gold Nefertiti necklace that Zeytun had given her on her twenty-fifth birthday. The necklace had originally belonged to Zeytun’s mother, Roda. Mari was so touched by the gift that she cried.

Zeytun shifted anxiously in her seat as they approached Woolwich. She’s going to spit in your face, snarled the voices, she’s going to make a fool of you. Zeytun was tempted to tell Mari to turn the car around and drive back home. What was she doing? She didn’t want to do this. What if the guests attacked her for being a lesbian? What if they all knew? She could hear them sneering, khaniisad.

I am a khaniisad, she thought, I’m a lesbian and I’m fucking proud of it. So what? What’s the worst that can happen?

They drew up outside the town hall. Somali men and women in colorful outfits were milling outside, talking on mobile phones, the women applying lipstick, the men smoking.  Zeytun recognized a few distant kinsfolk.

‘I can’t do this,’ she said.

‘You’ll be fine,’ said Mari, kissing her, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ She handed Zeytun her purse and the calabash, which was wrapped in purple paper. Zeytun got out of the car and headed inside the hall holding her gift protectively in front of her, her purse jammed up awkwardly under one arm.

The wedding was in full swing. A Somali jazz band was playing loudly although the acoustics were poor. Young girls in hijabs and boys suits were running around while Indian waiters served the food. On the ceiling were a few balloons, and a pink banner had been hung across the end wall that read Congratulations Libaan and Hamdi! Despite the frenetic playing of the band the dance-floor was empty and the men and women weren’t interacting with each other. The newlyweds were seated on plastic gold thrones on a platform at the far end of the hall. Hamdi wore a white hijab with gardenias and a silky Victorian-style dress whilst Libaan wore a white tux and white shoes.  Even though it was their wedding they were there to be admired and didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves. Hamdi looked tearful and Zeytun wanted to embrace her. As she moved towards the stage, one of the Indian waiters bumped into her and she dropped her calabash. It smashed onto the floor and everyone, including Hamdi, turned to look at her.

‘Zeytun?’ said Hamdi, but by then Zeytun was already running out of the hall. On her way out she bumped straight into an aunt that she disliked. The aunt, who was a gossipy old woman, said ‘Zeytun, dear, how’re you? Where have you been lately?’

‘Oh fuck off, Edo!’ said Zeytun running out into the car park. The aunt shouted curses at her as she looked around frantically for Mari.  Her heart was in her mouth, beating on her tongue. You should never have come, said the voices, it was a big mistake.  You’re a big mistake. She had even brought her camera with her, like a fool. She saw the car and started heading for it.

‘Zeytun, wait!’

She turned around and there Hamdi was, standing on her own at the entrance of the hall. They stood in silence for a few moments, watching each other. The aunt that Zeytun had insulted came outside to drag Hamdi back to the wedding.

‘Leave her,’ said the old woman, sneering, ‘she’s an ungrateful khaniisad.’

‘Oh fuck off, Edo!’ shouted Hamdi. Zeytun laughed. Hamdi came down the stairs leaving the old woman melodramatically fluttering her hand over her breast. Hamdi was now standing before Zeytun.

‘You didn’t invite me,’ said Zeytun, finally.

‘I was afraid you wouldn’t come.’

‘So you decided not to invite me anyway.’

‘Zey, I’m sorry if I hurt you - ’

‘Yes, you did hurt me.’

‘I just wanted the wedding to be a success.’

‘Sorry, I spoiled it for you then,’ Zeytun snapped.

‘I didn’t mean it like that - ’

‘Didn’t you?’

‘Come back inside, Zeytun.’

Zeytun brushed a tear from her eye. ‘No, I can’t do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘You don’t really want me here.’

Behind Hamdi, Libaan appeared in the doorway.

‘Hamdi, come back inside,’ he called.

‘In a minute!’ said Hamdi, impatiently. She and Zeytun stood facing each other, groping for words. Then Zeytun turned, and walked back to the car and got inside. Without missing a beat, Mari started the engine and drove off.

‘She’s gone,’ Zeytun cried quietly. Mari patted her on her back with one hand steering the car with the other. By the time they reached Blackheath, Zeytun had calmed down. She selected an album on her iPod and stuck it inside the car system. It was Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s ‘Comfort Woman.’ They both listened to it in silence. The sweetness of each song made the long journey bearable. They drove through Deptford and New Cross, with their deteriorated buildings and derelicts and although Zeytun hated these neighbourhoods, something was different tonight. The streetlights glowed brighter and the tramps looked less menacing. Had this place and its people changed? What made South London look beautiful tonight? Was it the sudden lack of noise in her head, the sense of clarity? The sound of her own voice saying, ‘I’m almost there’?

‘I’m almost free.’