MAKE YOUR OWN WAY HOME
It is strange to visit Tracy in a nursing home. Somehow Nadia associates the words with the old and the infirm and Tracy has not yet said goodbye to her teens. But that is what the elegant gold letters say and when Nadia rings the bell she asks herself, but what else do you expect them to write on the front door?
Cosy, unobtrusive, the house is like any other in this quiet north London street. A quaint gate, a small front garden, and when she goes inside Nadia can see the back garden with a clothes line, a green lawnmower propped against the wooden fence of next door. There are four women in the room. Tracy, three others and two empty beds. It’s not one of our busy days, the nurse later says. The curtains separating the beds are open and Oprah beams down from the TV which protrudes from the wall high above.
Bullying is the topic of the show. Childhood victims of bullying are telling their stories to a sympathetic audience.
Tracy in a pink nightgown, lank hair, a little pale. No, it doesn’t hurt much now; it did at first. We all had it done one after the other. I was first, then they brought me back here in a wheelchair. She tells Nadia about the other women in the room. The old-looking woman is Irish, Mandy or Maggie; Tracy isn’t sure. Her husband is sitting with her on the bed, they are laughing at the television show. The skinny woman with the permed hair, Kay. And the blonde with the great tan, she’s come all the way from South Africa. She was far ahead of us, Tracy whispers; you can still see now how big her stomach is. And believe me, Nadia, she soaked her bed with blood.
The South African girl has a visitor, a similar-looking friend who arrives with flowers. Kay’s boyfriend appears shortly after Nadia. Fat and reluctant he edges his way into the room, empty-handed. I should have brought flowers, thinks Nadia. But then she consoles herself with the thought that if she hadn’t come, Tracy would have been the only one without a visitor.
Do you have change for the phone?
Tracy takes twenty pence and gets up slowly from the bed, shuffling her feet around in search for her slippers. When she walks to the door she holds her lower stomach with one hand and Nadia sees dark stains on her friend’s nightgown.
Nadia lied to her parents to be here. Of course. What could she have told them? Long ago Lateefa unwittingly bestowed glamour on Tracy, making her friendship even more desirable. Lateefa said, That girl Tracy is no good. Don’t be her friend anymore. Perhaps she saw warning signs in the streak of color on Tracy’s lips, the awareness in her eyes. When Tracy wore a short skirt, she no longer crossed her bare legs carelessly like a child but did it deliberately with all the calm knowledge of an adult. She’ll have a bad end, Lateefa said and Nadia knew that her mother’s mind held images of the fallen women of the Egyptian cinema screen. The wrathful uncle from the south of Egypt stalking his niece with a loaded gun. Only blood could wash his family’s dishonor. And off the screen, in urban Cairo where there were no guns, there would be shame. Lateefa could imagine the shame. Mothers get divorced for this kind of thing. Sisters remain unwed. Grandmothers go to their graves before their time, crushed by sorrow. A girl’s honor is like a matchstick, break it and it can never be fixed.
Tracy has no gun-wielding uncle from the south. Her father will not divorce her mother because he already did so years ago. He went to Australia and Tracy’s dream is that she will visit him there one day. She watches Neighbours with obsessive love, she has three stuffed koala bears in her bedroom.
Tracy threw a tantrum when the perfect blue circle showed up on the stick she dipped in her morning urine. She could not believe it; such a thing could not happen to her. And today is a kind of relief; it is over at last. Time to get back to normal, to start pretending that nothing has happened.
Her mother paid up the two hundred and fifty pounds without a fuss. Then she packed and drove with Tracy’s stepfather and the twins to a house-swap holiday with a family in the Black Forest. The travel plans were made ages ago, house-swapping takes a long time to arrange and there was absolutely No Way they could cancel. And as Stepdad said, was it fair that the family’s holiday be disrupted because of Tracy’s carelessness?
So yesterday Tracy was counselled as the law prescribed, today she is to spend the night at the nursing home and next day she will go back to her everyday life. End of story.
They called me white trash. Oprah’s guest says this and bursts into tears. Compassion gurgles around the studio audience. Only Oprah reigns plump and polished. The softest baby cheeks, coiffured, coated with a yellow designer suit.
Now the show reaches new heights: former bullies appear to confront those people whose childhood they ruined. Boos and hisses from the audience. Irish laughter from the bed in the corner. Nadia can see that Maggie and her husband are holding hands. I never get to see this show, she is saying to him. It’s the time when the children are always watching their programs on the other channel.
But Nadia cannot laugh like them, her own childhood is still too close to her. She is moved by the pain unfolding before her on the screen. Was she bullied, did she ever bully anyone? Uneasy thoughts. And why is it that so many years later it is so easy to distinguish the bullies from their prey? Adult bodies surrounding the children of long ago. The years have changed nothing.
He wasn’t there. Tracy gives the coins back to Nadia. Let’s go upstairs. We’re not allowed to smoke in here.
Upstairs is a bright room overlooking the front of the house. Oriel windows with seats all around, a high ceiling, sandwiches on a tray. Coffee, tea, a kettle. Magazines and pamphlets on the low coffee table, posters on the walls. “Have You Considered Sterilisation?” . . . “The Morning After Pill—Ask your GP about it.”
Nadia chews a cheese sandwich, makes tea, leafs through the pamphlets. So what are you going to use now Tracy, progesterone injections, the low-dose mini-pill, the IUD? She reads them out as if she is choosing lunch from a menu.
Shut up, Nadia.
Tracy lights her second cigarette, and for an instant the flame gives her features a delicate glow as if she is painted, not real. She snaps the match in her hand into two before she throws it in the ashtray.
They sucked it out. The vacuum roared and sucked and gobbled. It’s a very loud noise, I told the nurse. Not really, she said, you must be imagining it. All the painkillers that you took. She held my hand and chatted to me to distract me. I lay down and it was like an initiation rite in those weird ceremonies they have in horror films. The contents of your womb, she called it. This is what they call it here. So many words for such a tiny thing.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Leila Aboulela's "Make Your Own Way Home" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 3.
Leila Aboulela was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. She is the author of four novels, The Kindness of Enemies, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, Minaret, and Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards.