ZW15 Second Place

Yumna Kassab


Um Ali – fifty-seven, a long-term resident of housing commission – awakens on her couch. The curtains cover the window but it is light. Outside there is silence. What is it that woke her?

She adjusts her blanket. It will be winter soon. She hates winter.

Her son’s alarm goes off again in the next room. It was his alarm! She hollers for him to get up. At least he is working again.

She hears his footsteps and then his lips brush her cheek. ‘What do you need today?’

Nothing, she thinks. ‘Cigarettes. I need cigarettes.’
‘You get them. You need to get out. I’m going to boil an egg. You want one?’

It always runs like this: he asks, she says cigarettes, he ignores her request and then offers breakfast. Today will be like yesterday and every other day. She will stare at breakfast, go to the corner store for smokes, shut the curtains he has opened, turn on the television, and with her cigarettes, she will manage another day.

A boiled egg is placed before her. Her son cracks it, peels the shell. He sets out bread next to her plate, also measuring out salt and pepper. ‘Eat!’

‘I’m not hungry.’ She lights her first cigarette of the day. It is her last one. She always leaves one in the pack for the morning.

He cleans up, leaving her alone with the egg. Before he leaves, he kisses her cheek once more.

Back on her couch, she sets the coffee pot on a newspaper. She removes the plastic off her cigarettes. She opens the lid and sniffs. Bliss.

Over her second cigarette, she chooses the shows she will watch. She circles her choices carefully with a pencil. In three minutes, her first selection will begin. It is a 1973 romance about a pilot whose plane goes down off the coast of Italy. A nun finds him; that is all the guide reveals.

The pilot is speaking to the youngest nun when there is a knock on the door.

She isn’t expecting anyone. She waits. There is another knock. A woman calls out. Um Ali glances at the TV, at the earnest face of the pilot, and then she goes to the door.

It is Um Ahmed. How many years has it been since she visited? Three, four? It was before Ali was caught. It must be four at least.

She invites her in. She does not open the curtains. Instead she turns on the lights. Her children constantly complain about her electricity bill but she can’t have her guest in the dark. From the kitchen, she picks a second cup and then she returns to the television.

In her absence, the pilot has had a scuffle with one of the village men. A nun is dabbing at a cut on his cheek.

Um Ahmed asks after her children, the missing Abu Ali. Good, good, they’re all good, she says.

‘And your heart? I heard about your heart.’
‘My heart is good.’
‘That is good to hear.’

The pilot is tanning by the sea in his shorts. He has taken up fishing. People were beautiful in those days.

‘And how is Ali?’
‘He’s the same.’ Another cigarette, more coffee. ‘He is the same.’ Her stomach rumbles. The egg sits untouched on the table.

‘When will he be out?’

She considers the question and why people ask questions with no answer. Is it curiosity, is it mere conversation? Either way, wouldn’t it be better to ask questions with clear answers?

‘Not for a while.’
‘Have you seen him lately?’

And then there are questions with obvious answers not worth the breath required to ask them.

‘And Mohamed, is he working again?’

The pilot is lying in the water, laughing with his clear, white teeth. Excepting the cut on his cheek, he is all health. She would like to be on a beach somewhere, away from this woman with her questions.

‘That is good. It’s important for boys to work.’
‘He’s a good boy. That’s more important than anything else.’
‘Yes, yes, but work’s important too.’

She thinks of Ali serving time for his line of work, of Sami paralysed from a scaffolding accident, of Bilal fighting in a war somewhere, the two girls stay-at-home mothers, and Mohamed working in factories again. She would give every cigarette in the world to have her children around her today.

Um Ahmed asks something. She pretends to not hear the question or the next one. Eventually Um Ahmed makes an excuse and gets up to leave. Um Ali locks the door after her, turns off the lights again, lights a fresh cigarette, and sits alone with her pilot once more.