Sometimes I'm Happy
There is something special about this shape. I am reluctant to use the word 'perfect' - but truly, there is no other. I envy its simplicity.
I find myself wondering more often whether I should bother with a glass at all. The only thing that keeps me drinking straight from the bottle is this childlike game I play, leaning forwards over the glass and looking down, closing one eye, then the other, trying to move my perspective so I see the surface of the wine in a perfect circle.
It makes me smile. It is not wide or endearing - but a smile, nonetheless. They are hard to come by.
I pour a few more drops into the glass, trying my utmost to ensure the liquid lands precisely in the centre. Of course, I fail. My hands are so unsteady these days.
The fragile circle is upset, wavelets expand and contract across the surface. I feel a strange sense of guilt. Not the guilt I live with every waking hour, the guilt that anchors my mind to a night three years ago - an overturned car, a vision blurred by smoke and booze, a dead girl in the passenger seat next to me...
No, this guilt derives from nothing more than the simple act of topping up a glass of wine, disturbing the surface as I do so.
Isn't that odd.
It occurs to me that if I pour, maybe, a quarter of a glass and drink the rest from the bottle then the circle I made would never need to be disturbed.
Yes, that's the solution.
I stop pouring and take one last urgent gulp from the glass leaving it a fraction full. Equilibrium - my circle - is restored. The same shape, only smaller. I appreciate its beauty and again, for the briefest of moments, I forget my guilt.
I raise the narrow neck of the wine bottle to my trembling lips and wonder if there is hope for me after all...
I once knew someone else with that name. Except he spelled it A-K-E-E-L. He came from Iraq and he was nineteen.
It was when I was married to Saleh and we were living in Amman. Saleh wasn't the name he was going by then. It was his real name but since to leave Iraq he'd needed a passport and he wasn't eligible for one because he hadn't done his military service, he'd assumed a different identity. Having older brothers, always an irritation, suddenly became an advantage and one who'd done his time and had two kids loaned his name. Don't ask why Saleh had to leave Iraq. This story is about Akeel.
We had a flat in Sweileh. For two people to occupy a whole two bedroom flat was practically unheard of. The rent took most of my wages. I worked at the Conservatory, writing textbooks, teaching. Saleh wasn't allowed to work as a doctor. He was paid to translate what I wrote into Arabic. It was a symbiotic relationship: I wrote, he translated more exactly than anyone else could have and the Conservatory got two for the price of one and a few extra dinars.
We celebrated Christmas with my British friend and her two kids. I roasted a chicken in our useless oven. I'm not sure why I chose to do that because it took ours and the shop on the corner had chickens permanently spit roasting in a rotisserie cabinet outside. Tradition, I guess. I'd made a pudding a couple of weeks earlier. Saleh went with me to the butcher to buy suet. He was embarrassed because they usually threw the suet in the bin, so he asked for kidneys with the suet as an extra. I could tell from the way he prepared the kidneys, cutting out all the nasty bits, that he'd be a brilliant surgeon. The mixture had looked very white, so I put some of his mum's date syrup in it, jumped in a taxi an went over to Julie's house so the kids could stir it and make a wish. The chicken was pretty underdone, but the pudding made up for it. Afterwards we went to the cinema, a rare expensive treat.
For New Year, Saleh invited his friends, eight of them, all Iraqi men. He wanted a traditional roast dinner, so I bought some chickens and stashed them in the oven, served them up with mash, carrots and frozen peas. No roasties but nobody was any the wiser.
After dinner, without warning, Saleh announced that I would read tarot for everyone. They all had glowing futures, asylum, wives and families, money, fancy cars. Of course. But one man did have a bright future: that man was Akeel. We saw the New Year in with a Michael Jackson concert. Everyone, except me, danced.
The next day Saleh quizzed me about the readings and after teasing him a bit I confessed it was Akeel who was going to have a good life; he was the lucky one.
Akeel began to come to our flat regularly, usually when I was at work. Sometimes he'd still be there when I got home, more often there'd be a couple of istikhans, thickly coated with sugar, in the sink or on the coffee table. Once I came home early and found Akeel putting his shirt on, strange marks on his back, Saleh screwing the top back on a jar of antiseptic cream. When I asked Saleh later he eventually told me that Akeel had been tortured with hot screwdrivers in his back. When they released him, he fled, like so many, to Jordan. I didn't need to ask why. I'd lived in Iraq and seen the fear on people's faces. I knew something of the abuse of power, how the police would arrest young men to augment their pathetic wages and demand money from the families for their release. Akeel's family obviously didn't pay up in time.
One day in February Saleh told me Akeel had gone to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR. I'd seen the queues outside their building and didn't hold out much hope for Akeel, but we learned they had put him in their hostel while they investigated his case.
Everyone thinks of the Middle East as being hot all the time. It isn't. If Jesus was born in a stable, it was most likely freezing, draughty and it might have been snowing. Somehow in our heads, our Christmas is a Victorian snow scene and in the Middle East it is a balmy haven of sunshine. In Iraq, Jordan and Israel, when I spent Christmases there, it rained most of the winter. My birthday is in February and Saleh sold his leather jacket to buy me a present and a cake, and went around shivering.
We needed a treat and on 27th I knew I'd be paid the next day, so I spent all but the busfare to work on some fruit and a tin of Heinz baked beans.
Around 4pm there was a knock at the door. I answered it and there was Akeel, smiling. No words were needed. I was looking at a man about to start a new life. How do you welcome someone like that into your home? With tea, and food, lots of food. Akeel said he was fasting in gratitude to Allah for granting his wish.
When the athan sounded, Saleh and Akeel went to wash and pray; I knew what would be needed afterwards. I ran down to the chicken shop and I'm quite sure they never expected me to say:
I need chicken.
I walked home with a chicken, bread, rice, salad and two bottles of Coca Cola.
That was in 1997. My life took a strange direction in 2011 when set up a charity in the UK for asylum seekers. It's always a huge pleasure when someone gets leave to remain. We have cake and candles. It gives people hope. They think: me, I'll be next. I always think of Akeel and soon Mr Aqil will give me a new life, a fresh start.
So, sometimes, I'm happy.
Sometimes, Euphoria is all I need.
At quarter to midnight, I wait for her in my dressing room. My nerves are shot but luckily, she arrives sooner than expected. She is bright, confident, and raring to go.
“Just one last time.” I tell myself, as Euphoria tries to calm me. She then helps me change into the last part of my costume — a well-practiced smile.
At midnight, we step on stage together. We’re surrounding by glittering curtains and shining eyes and I feel the panic in me rise once more, but Euphoria holds my hand, and I slowly feel myself lulled into something like composure.
The audience is hidden behind a sea of coral chiffon as we move with the music. The bangles on my wrist help to hide deeply etched scars layered with concealer, while their jingling dulls the noise from the crowd. I forget where I am and who is watching and soon, I remember why I enjoy it so much. I am entranced by the melody, by myself, and by Euphoria. Nothing and no one else matters and I think to myself, maybe this won’t be the last time after all.
Hours feel like minutes and before I know it the show is over, and the spell is broken. As we take our last bow, I feel part of me shrink as I begin to awaken from the trance, but Euphoria is still there, by my side. She holds my hand again and quashes my fear, helping me to bow with grace and confidence to a standing ovation.
It's the early hours of the morning, and I am walking home barefoot; I stagger a little even though I’m carrying my heals. Euphoria is struggling as well, and though I’m tempted to ask her for more help, I think better of it. The scent of alcohol breezes past me as I flip my hair behind my shoulders. I wrinkle my nose and tell myself, again, that tonight was the last night.
“Just one more time,” says Euphoria quietly, as if she were reading my mind, “come on, it could be so much fun!” I try to ignore her, but her voice is unparalleled in its seductive tenor.
After almost an hour, we finally reach the neon lined windows of The Epicure, a club across the street from my flat. I stop outside the window and try to peer through the tinted glass. Euphoria urges me to go inside.
“Come on, I’ll cheer you up.” she says, but her voice is now quieter, and I can almost ignore her.
We take a step closer to the window and a woman with a curious and confused expression looks back at me. She looks pained; her face is haggard and pale with a large, dark shadow covering one eye. I move as close as I can get without bumping my head, and I can just about see Euphoria, or what’s left of her. My pupils have somewhat constricted and are almost at their usual size, but there’s still some redness in the whites of my eyes — Euphoria is still clinging on.
There was once a time when I could barely leave my bed in a morning, let alone step foot on stage in front of a crowd, but then Euphoria came along. She is everything I want to be. She is mood-altering and she is vibrant. She is confident and always happy, and sometimes, only when I’m with her, I’m happy too.
She is there for me when no one else is, lulling a deep sadness in me that no other worldly pleasure can quell.
Sometimes people need a hug, sometimes people need alcohol, but sometimes, all I need is Euphoria.