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Missing Out

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Missing Out

Leila Aboulela

 

In his first term at college in London, Majdy wrote letters home announcing that he would not make it, threatening that he would give up and return. to call him on the phone, his mother made several trips to the Central Post Office in Khartoum, sat for hours on the low wooden bench, fanning her face with the edge of her tobe in the stifling heat, shooing away the barefooted children who passed by with loaded trays trying to sell her chewing gum, hairpins and matches. ‘Get away from my face,’ she snapped at the girl who had edged by her side and was almost leaning onto her lap. ‘Didn’t I just tell you I don’t want your stuff?’ on the third day she got through, wedged herself into a cubicle but did not close the glass door behind her. Majdy’s throat tightened when he heard her voice. In the cool corridor of the hostel he held the receiver and leaned his head against the wall, hiding his face in the crook of his arm. The students who passed him walked a little bit quicker, felt a little bit awkward hearing his voice heavy with tears, unnaturally loud, foreign words they could not understand echoing and hanging around the walls.

There in Khartoum, she also, in her own way, could not understand what he was saying. All this talk about the work being difficult was, of course, nonsense. Her son was brilliant. Her son always came top of his class. She had a newspaper photograph of him at sixteen when he got one of the highest marks in the secondary school Certificate, shaking the now-deposed president’s hand. His father had slain a sheep in celebration and distributed the meat among the beggars that slept outside the nearby mosque. His sisters had thrown a party for him, heady with singing and dancing. And she had circled the pot of burning incense over his head, made him step over it, back and forth, to ward off the envy and malice that was surely cloaking him. Ninety-nine per cent in the maths paper, she had ecstatically repeated to friends and relations. Ninety-nine per cent, and mind you, they took that extra mark from him just from sheer miserliness, just so as not to give him the full marks.

‘Take this thought of giving up out of your mind,’ she said to him on the long-distance line.

‘Can’t you understand I’ve failed my qualifying exam?’ the word ‘failed’ was heavy on his tongue. ‘The exam I need to be able to register for a PhD.’

‘So sit it again,’ she insisted. ‘You will pass inshallah and then come home for the summer. I myself will pay for the ticket. Don’t worry.’ she had independent means, that woman. And when she put the phone down, a project started brewing in her mind. She dawdled on her way home, plotting and wishing. A few hours later, refreshed from her siesta and the cup of tea with milk she always had at sunset, she gathered the family and launched a new campaign: ‘my Poor son All Alone in London needs A Wife’. That was how Majdy came to marry Samra. After banging his head against books, working the proofs again and again, copying curvaceous lambdas, gammas and sigmas from the blackboard and into the whirling mass of his dreams, he was ready to sit for his qualifying exam. In June he flew to Khartoum. In July he received the good news that he had passed, and by the end of summer he was returning to London accompanied by his new bride.

All his life Majdy had known Samra, as a cousin of his sister’s best friend, as the daughter of so-and-so. There was no sudden meeting between them, no adolescent romance. He had detached memories of her: a black-and-white photograph of a child squinting her eyes in the sun, standing with his sister and others in front of the giraffes’ cage at the zoo. A teenager in a blue dress with her hair in a single braid, holding a tray of Pepsi bottles at a friend’s engagement party. And the horrific story that had fascinated him in his childhood – Samra getting bitten by a stray dog and having to have thirty rabies injections in her stomach.

In 1985, he had seen her through grapevines, behind a carport over which the leaves climbed and weaved a criss-cross maze. He was pressing the doorbell of a house near the university, on one of the smaller side roads which housed the university’s staff. On the main road, the students were demonstrating against the proposed execution of an opposition-party leader. While they were marching for justice, Majdy was searching for Professor Singh, lecturer in topology, to beg for a reference letter. It was for one of those numerous grants to do postgraduate research that he was always chasing. From where he was, he could hear the shouting. It came to him in waves, rising and falling, rhythmic and melodious. He could not make out the exact words.

They never let the students get very far; they never let them reach the marketplace where they would swell in numbers and cause a riot. Where other grievances and older pains would join the cry against the injustice of that one death. And deprivation might shake off its hypnotic slumber and lash out in the monotonous heat of the day. Down university Road until the first roundabout and then the tear gas would blind them, send them running back, tumbling through the dust and the fallen banners on the ground.

She was crying when she and her friend came running and stood underneath the carport of the house adjacent to the professor’s. Crying from the gas and laughing. ‘I tore my sandal, it’s ruined,’ he heard her say. She held it in her hand, the tears running in parentheses down her dust-coated face. Her tobe had fallen down, collapsed around her waist and knees, and her hair had escaped the one braid it was tied into and stuck out from her head in triangular spikes. At the nape of her neck, tight little ringlets glistened with sweat, dark and sleek. Laden with moisture, they lay undisturbed and appeared detached from everything else, the tear gas and the dust, her torn sandal, her fallen tobe. There was a zeer in front of the house and he watched her lift the wooden cover, fill the tin mug with water and begin to wash her face. She smoothed her hair with water, searched through it for hairpins which she prised open with her teeth and locked the wayward strands.

And all the time she was laughing, crying, sniffing. Chatting to her friend as they both pulled the ends of their tobes over their left shoulders, wrapped the material neatly in place and over their hair. ‘This sandal is so ruined you can’t even wear it as a slipper!’ her friend said.

He felt cynical watching them, especially when, now that the demonstration was disbanded, other students passed by, cursing and spitting, with torn shirts and the pathetic remnants of their banners. He did not have the anger to demonstrate, he did not have the ability to enjoy the thrill of rebellion. And the next day, as he predicted, the futility of their action was exposed. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was hanged on a Friday morning.

Later, or perhaps at the time he was looking at her through the vines, he thought, I could talk to her now. She would be approachable now, not formal or shy. She would yield to me now. And over the years we will talk of this day again and again and claim it was the start. But he let her go, rang the professor’s bell and soon heard footsteps coming towards him from inside.

It is pointless to resist fate, impossible to escape its meanderings. But who knows how to distinguish fate’s pattern from amid white noise? Years later when his mother led her campaign, the name Samra cropped up. His older sister was dispatched to test the waters. The reception was good. Prospective bridegrooms living abroad (it didn’t matter where) were in great demand.

When they walked into his room in London, they quarrelled. But this was not because the room was small and designed for one student. He had applied for married students’ accommodation but the university had yet to allocate them a flat. The tension started up as soon as she stepped out of the bathroom. There were droplets of water on her hair and her arms, the sleeves of her blouse rolled up. ‘Where is your prayer mat?’ she asked.

‘I don’t have one,’ Majdy said. He was lying in bed enjoying his return to that particular quiet of London, the patch of moving grey sky he could see from the window, the swish of cars on wet roads. It was as if Khartoum had been grinding around him in a perpetual hum and now that humming sound was pleasantly absent.

‘Well, what do you use instead?’ she was already holding a towel. ‘Where’s the qibla?’

He would need to figure out the direction of the Ka’ba. From Britain, Mecca was south-east of course, because Saudi Arabia was south-east. So in this particular room, which direction should she face? Where exactly was the south-east?

‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘You’ve been here a whole year without praying?’

Yes, he had.

‘And Fridays? What about the Friday prayers?’

‘I have classes that day.’

‘Miss them.’

He sat up. ‘Don’t be stupid. Where do you think you are?’ the quick hurt look on her face made him regret that he had called her stupid. He took her in his arms and said, ‘It’s not as if I’m finding the course so easy that I can play truant.’

She smiled and was keen to brush away her disappointment. He suggested an outing and they went by bus to the Central mosque. There he bought her a red prayer mat and a compass which pointed to the direction of Mecca. She also picked up a booklet which listed the times of the prayers. Each month was on a page, the days in rows and the different prayers in columns.

Sitting next to him on the bus, she studied the booklet. ‘The times change so much throughout the year!’

‘Because of the seasons,’ he explained. ‘In the winter the day is very short and in the summer it is very long.’

‘So in winter I will be rushing to pray one prayer after the other and in the summer there will be hours and hours between afternoon and sunset.’ she said ‘I’ not ‘we’ and that seemed to him proper and respectful. She would forge ahead on her own whether he joined her or not. He was relieved that this outing to the mosque had satisfied her. Cheap and hassle-free. On a student budget, he could scarcely afford expensive restaurants or luxurious shopping trips. It was good that she was a simple Khartoum girl, neither demanding nor materialistic.

Still, she said that she wanted him to promise to change, to try harder and commit to the compulsory prayers. She was intent on influencing him but he was shy of the intimacy conversations about faith and practice evoked. After all, they did not know each other well and these were heady days of physical discovery, the smallness of the room making them bump and rub against each other. He was, naturally, the first man in her life and she was swayed between discomfort and pleasure, between lack of sleep and the feeling that all her girlhood and all her beauty had led to this. A honeymoon in London, her wedding henna still bright on her palms and feet. Majdy was, he had to admit to himself, captivated by the comforts and delights she offered, charmed by her looks and laughter. Then she would spoil it all by talking about religion, by reminding him that without these five daily contacts one was likely to drift off without protection or grace or guidance. Was he not a believer? Yes, in a half-hearted way he was, but he was also lazy and disinterested. Here in London, Majdy argued, praying was a distraction, an interruption and, most of all because of the changing times that followed the movement of the sun rather than the hands of the clock, praying was inconvenient. ‘Don’t talk to me about this again,’ he finally said, drawing her towards him. ‘Don’t nag.’

In the days to come, when he became engrossed in his work again, he sensed her by his side, sympathetic, aware of his moods, sensitive to his needs, gentle and generous. Then she would move away to splash in the bathroom and come out to pray. She held the day up with pegs. Five prayers, five pegs. The movement of the sun was marked, the day was mapped and Majdy felt his life become more structured, his time more blessed. In their cramped room Samra’s prayer mat took up a large portion of the floor, the old tobe she covered herself with dropped over it in a coiled heap. Sometimes, she reproached with a look or a word, sometimes she looked sad and worried on his behalf, but she continued to follow her own course, her own obligations, keen to preserve this practice even though she was away from home.

He wanted her to enjoy lively, civilized London. He wanted her to be grateful to him for rescuing her from the backwardness of Khartoum. He thought that, like him, she would find it difficult at first and then settle down. But the opposite happened. During the first months, she showed the enthusiastic approval of the tourist. Enjoyed looking at the shops, was thrilled at how easy all the housework was. She could buy meat already cut up for her. There were all these biscuits and sweets to choose from and they were not expensive at all. Even the pharmacies were stocked so full of medicine in so many different colours and flavours that she almost longed to be ill. Every object she touched was perfect, quality radiated from every little thing. The colour of hairpins did not chip under her nails like it had always done; chewing gum was not the brittle stick that often dissolved in her mouth at the first bite. Empty jam jars were a thing of beauty; she would wash them and dry them and not be able to throw them away. Biscuit tins, those she wanted to collect to take back home, her mother would use them to store flour or sugar. Or put her own baked cakes in them, send a tin proudly to the neighbour, and days later the neighbour would return the tin with her own gift inside.

She put on weight, she wrote happy letters home. Majdy showed her the university’s library – so many floors that there were lifts inside and even toilets! They toured the shining computer rooms and she was impressed. She made him feel that he was brilliant, which deep down he knew he was all along. Then the days shortened, became monotonous. She was like the holidaymaker who was getting a little bit tired of her exotic surroundings. Everything around her began to feel temporary, detached from normal life. This happened when Majdy began to talk of getting a work permit once his student visa expired, of not going back after he got his PhD.

It was the continuity that she found most alien. It rained and people lifted up umbrellas and went their way; the shelves in the supermarket would empty and fill again. The postman delivered the mail every day.

‘Don’t your lectures ever get cancelled? Don’t your lecturers get ill, don’t their wives give birth? When the Queen dies, will they give everyone a holiday?’

‘She’ll die on a Sunday,’ he would say, laughing at her questions. ‘This is what civilization is, the security to build your life, to make something out of it. Not to be hindered all the time by coups and new laws, by sitting all day in a petrol queue. By not being able to get your ill child to a doctor because they are on strike.’

She listened carefully to everything he said. Would nod in agreement though her eyes remained wary. When she spoke of the future though, she would imagine they were going back, as if his hopes of staying in London were only dreams, or as if his hopes were an inevitability she wished to deny. ‘I imagine you coming home early,’ she would say, there would not be this endlessly long working day like here.

‘We would sleep in the afternoon under the fan, its blades a grey blur, the sun so hard and bright that it would still be with us through the closed shutters. I would tease you about your students – are the girls pretty, do they come to your office after lectures and sweetly say, Ustaz, I can’t understand this, I can’t understand that? Ustaz, don’t be so hard on us when you’re marking our exams. And you would laugh at me and shake your head, say I’m talking rubbish but I would know from your eyes how much my possessiveness pleases you. The children playing on the roof would wake us up, their footsteps thudding over the hum of the fan. They are not allowed up there, it is not safe among the jagged green pieces of glass that ward off thieves. And you are furious with them; you go outside and throw your slipper at your son as he drops himself down from the tree, one foot balanced on the windowsill. He is the eldest, the instigator. But he is mischievous and ducks; you miss him and have to shout BRING THE SLIPPER BACK. From inside I hear his laugh like cool tumbling water. You once bought a whip for this boy, you got it from the souk in Umdurman where they sell good whips, and you were quite pleased with yourself that day. You lashed it through the air to frighten the children with its snake-like power. But you did not have much of a chance to use it because he took it and threw it on top of the neighbour’s roof and so it remained there among the fluffs of dust, razor blades and other things the wind carried to that roof. I would make tea with mint. By now the sun would have nearly set, it would be the hottest part of the day, no breeze, no movement, as if the whole world was holding its breath for the departure of the sun. Our neighbour comes over and you drink the tea together, he brings with him the latest gossip, another political fiasco; and you are amused, your good mood is restored. Your son behaves well in front of guests; he leaves his play, comes and shakes the man’s hand. The sound of grief cuts the stillness of the evening, like a group of birds howling, circling and yapping with their throats. We guess it must be the elderly neighbour across the square; he has been in and out of hospital for some time. I grab my tobe and run, run in my slippers to mourn with them.’

‘You are hallucinating, woman.’ this was Majdy’s answer. He had proof. ‘Number one, I will never, with the salary the university pays its lecturers, be able to afford us a house or a flat of our own. Unless I steal or accept bribes and there is not much opportunity for either in my kind of work. We would probably live with my parents; my mother would get on your nerves sooner or later. You will complain about her day and night and you will be angry with me because you expect me to take your side and I don’t. Number two, how will I ever get to the souk of Umdurman with no petrol. And there is unlikely to be any electricity for your fan. The last thing, why do you assume that nothing pleases me better than drinking tea and gossiping with the neighbour? This is exactly the kind of waste of time that I want to get away from. That whole atmosphere where so-called intellectuals spend their time arguing about politics. Every lecturer defined by his political beliefs, every promotion depending on one’s political inclination and not the amount of research he’s done or the papers he’s published. My colleagues would be imagining that it is their responsibility to run the country. Debating every little thing from every abstract angle. the British gave it up, packed and left without putting up a fight, and somehow the Sudanese carry this air of pride, of belief that their large, crazy country will one day rise gracefully from its backwardness and yield something good!’

She sometimes argued back when he spoke like that. Accused him of disloyalty, a lack of feeling. Sometimes she would be silent for days, control herself and not mention either the future or the past. Then like one breaking a fast, she would speak, offer him memories and stories, and wait for him to take them. Wait with the same patience, the same serene insistence with which the little girls at the Central Post office had offered pins and gum to his mother.

‘I am not making this up,’ she said one night as they walked on a side street sleek with rain and yellow lamplight. ‘This really happened. After your mother phoned you at the Central Post office she stood for an hour waiting for a bus or a taxi. None came; transport was bad that day because of the petrol shortage. The sun burned her head and she became exhausted from standing. So she walked to the middle of the road, stood right in the middle of the road, and raised her hand, palm upwards. She stopped the first car, opened the front door and got in. “my son,” she said to the driver, “I am fed up of waiting for transport. And I can’t move another step. For Allah’s sake, drive me home, I’ll show you the way.” And he did drive her home even though it wasn’t on his way. And as they chatted, he called her Aunt.’

And in July, rain that made silver puddles. The sun disappearing for a day, the new smell of the earth. And there would be no work that day, no school. The cars stranded islands in the flooded streets.

‘Because there are no proper gutters,’ he would tell her. ‘No drainage system and all those potholes. Remember the stink of the stagnant water days later. Remember the mosquitoes that would descend, spreading disease.’

‘Silver puddles,’ she would say, ‘under a sky strange with blue clouds.’

Another memory. She offered it like a flower pressed into his hands. On the week before the wedding, they went to visit his uncle. The electricity cut and the air cooler’s roar turned to a purr, its fan flapped and then all the sound died down. The sudden darkness, the sudden silence. They sat and listened to the gentle drip-drop sound of the water on the air cooler’s fresh straw. Opened the windows to let in the faint night air and the scents from the jasmine bushes. Moonlight filled the room with blue-grey shadows. Outlines rose of the coloured sweets on the table, the ice melting in their glasses of lemon juice. While their hosts stumbled around in search of candles and lights, Majdy had leaned over and kissed her for the first time.

‘But, Samra, do you want a power cut in London? Think of that – elevators, traffic lights, the trains. Chaos and fear. They would write about it in the newspapers, talk about it on TV. And in Khartoum it is an everyday event, another inconvenience, part of the misery of life. Defrosted fridges become cupboards with the food all soggy and rotting inside.’

Sometimes he looked at her and felt compassion. Felt that, yes, she did not belong here. Looked at the little curls at the nape of her neck, dry now and light, not moist with sweat, and thought that she was meant for brilliant sunsets and thin cotton dresses. Her small teeth made to strip the hard husk of sugar cane, her dimples for friends and neighbours. He could see her in idle conversation, weaving the strands of gossip with a friend. Passing the time in the shade of palm trees and bougainvilleas, in a place where the hours were long.

Most times though, he could not understand how she was not excited by the opportunities their new life held. How she could not admire the civilized way that people went about their business here, their efficiency and decency, ambulances and fire engines that never let anyone down. The way a cheque card could slide through a wedge on the wall and crisp cash emerge. These things impressed her, but not for long. She exclaimed at how the pigeons and ducks in the parks were left unmolested. No one captured them to eat them. But instead of enjoying their beauty, she brooded over how poor her own people were.

He began to think of her homesickness as perverse. Her reluctance wholeheartedly to embrace their new life, an intransigence. He began to feel bored by her nostalgia, her inability to change or to initiate a new life for herself. Homesickness was blocking her progress, blinding her to all the benefits she could gain. There were so many choices, so many new doors and yet she was stuck in the past, adoring Sudan and missing out on the present. He had, in the time he had spent in London, met Sudanese women who blossomed in their new surroundings. He had seen them in tight trousers they would not dare wear back home, playing with lighted cigarettes in their hands. And though he did not expect or really want her to do exactly these things, he was disappointed that she did not capture that same spirit and instead seemed shyer, more reserved than she ever was in Khartoum. She wanted to wear her tobe, to cover her hair and he would say no, no, not here. I do not want us to be associated with fanatics and backwardness.

It is frightening to come home at the end of the day and find your wife sitting, just sitting, in her dressing gown and her hair uncombed just as you have left her in the morning. She, who checks her reflection in every mirror, who for you scents her hair with sandalwood, dips steel in kohl to wipe the rims of her eyes. You find her sitting and the whole place is untouched, no smells of cooking, the bed unmade, mugs stained with tea, the remaining few flakes of cereal swollen in their bowl. She is silent, looks at you as if you don’t exist, does not yield or soften under your touch. Stroke her hair and rub her hands and probe for the right words, the words she wants to hear. Talk of jasmine-scented gardens, of a wedding dance, of the high Nile breaking its banks. Until she can cry.

For days afterwards, as Majdy put his key in the lock, as he turned it, he would brace himself for that same scene, he would fear a reoccurrence. He had been happy that day. While she sat at home with a frozen heart, he had glimpsed a modest success, a slight breakthrough in his work. A paper he had been looking for, a paper written five years ago in his same area of work, was located in another library. And he had gone there, to that college on the other side of London, an event in itself, for he was always at the library or using the mainframe computers. He had found it, photocopied it, warmed to its familiar notation and travelled back, full of appreciation for that meticulous body of knowledge, the technology that enabled one to locate written material. We are centuries behind, he would tell her later, in things like that we are too far behind ever to catch up. And while she had sat in her dressing gown, immobile, ignoring hunger and thirst, he had entered the mind of that other mathematician, followed his logic and when finding an error (the subscript for lambda should have been t-1 and not t), a typing error or a more serious slip from the writer, he had been infused with a sense of pleasure. So that even while he knelt next to her and asked, what is wrong, what has happened, the formulae with their phis and gammas and lambdas still frolicked in his brain and the idea occurred to him that her name, if he ignored its real Arabic meaning, sounded just like these Greek letters, these enigmatic variables with their soft shapes and gentle curves. Alpha, lambda, sigma, beta, samra.

He proposed a practical solution to her problem. She must do something with herself, she was too idle, and as she was not allowed to work without a permit, then she must study. Already her English was good so word processing would be ideal; she could type his thesis for him. He was enthusiastic about the idea; a word-processing course of a few weeks, and through it perhaps she would meet others like herself from all over the world, make friends and keep busy. So she, who had once braved tear gas, the crush of running feet, now faced a middle-aged teacher, a jolly woman who had recently travelled to Tunisia for her holidays and come back encased in kaftans and shawls. The teacher gushed at Samra, ‘You must be so relieved that you are here, all that war and famine back home. You must be relieved that you are not there now.’ From such a woman Samra recoiled and like a spoiled stubborn child refused to continue with the course.

Out of exasperation, Majdy suggested that she should go home for a few months. He winced as he saw her try to hide the eagerness from her voice when she said, ‘Yes, that would be nice.’ And the polite questions, wouldn’t the ticket be too expensive, would he be all right on his own? Then she left, easily, so easily as if she had never truly arrived, never laid down roots that needed pulling out.

Without her, it suddenly started to feel like the year he had spent alone in London before they got married. The days drifting together, no reason to come home in the evening, all around him too much quietude. Without her he was not sure how to organize his day, to work at home or at the library, to work late at night or wake up early in the morning. He knew it did not matter either way but that early sparkle of liberty which had characterized the first days of her absence, that feeling of relief, of a responsibility shed, soon faded away and freedom hung around him, stale and heavy.

While Samra was away, London became more familiar to him. He thought of it as his new home and it was as if the city responded. He could feel it softening around him, becoming genial in its old age. The summers getting hotter and hotter. A new humid heat, sticky, unlike the dry burning of the desert in Sudan. People filled the streets, the parks, a population explosion or as if a season of imprisonment was over and they were now let loose. They lay immobile on towels spread on the grass, drove in cars without roofs, spilled out of cafes onto the pavements.

Beggars squatted around the stations, third World style. The sight of the beggars jarred him, he could not look them in the face, he could not give them money. It did not look right or feel right that white people should be poor. It was shameful that they were homeless and begging. It was unnatural that he was better off than them. He had a faint memory of discovering that in Europe begging was illegal. The information, incredible to him and awe-inspiring, had been in his mind part of the magic of the Western world. A place where everyone’s livelihood was so guaranteed that begging could be considered a crime.

He had once told Samra that this country chips away one’s faith, but he began to see that it chipped away indiscriminately at all faith, even faith in itself. And as it accepted him, his admiration for it stabilized, his faith in it wavered. It was no longer enough, as it once had been, that he was here, that he was privileged to walk London’s streets, smell the books of its libraries, feast his eyes on its new, shining cars. He would walk on wet roads that never flooded and realize that he would never know what it would be like to say, ‘my ancestors built this, my grandfather borrowed a book from this library.’ London held something that could never be his, that was impossible to aspire to.

His mother phoned him, her voice loud over the bustle of the Central Post Office. ‘Why did you send Samra back for a holiday so soon? Is anything wrong between you?’

He was taken aback. ‘No, of course not.’ marrying Samra had helped him feel settled and comfortable, well fed and looked after. He had liked working late into the night, kept company by her presence, the click of the spoon as she stirred sugar in tea, the chiming of her bangles, her movements when she stood up to pray in that early summer dawn. ‘Did she complain about anything?’

‘No.’ his mother’s voice was casual. ‘She just mentioned that you don’t pray.’

‘Oh.’ he could not think of a reply. The corridor of the hostel was empty. He stared at the vending machine which sold chocolates and drinks. Samra had been fascinated by this machine. She had tried to get it to work with Sudanese coins. He missed her.

‘Is it true that you want to stay on in London after you get your degree?’ this was why she had telephoned. The nip of anxiety.

‘Yes, it would be better for me.’ His PhD was now within reach. He had been invited to a conference in Bath, he was stepping through the door, and after all this hard work, he intended to stay and reap what he had sown.

His mother gasped down the line, ‘How can you leave me all alone in my old age?’

He smiled because he had brothers and sisters living in Khartoum. There was no need for her melodramatic response. ‘Don’t you want the best for me? You are the one who is always complaining that Sudan is going from bad to worse.’

His mother sighed. First he had threatened to abandon his studies and return without a degree, now he was threatening the opposite! She had married him off so that he would not drift away, so that he would stay close. ‘But what if things improve here, son? If they strike oil or make lasting peace, would you not be missing out?’

‘I can’t decide my future based on speculations.’ Simulate a system over time, build a model, play around with a set of variables, observe what happens when you introduce a shock. This was his work.

Back in his room, Majdy noticed the silence. The floor looked strangely larger. Samra had folded her prayer mat and put it away in her side of the cupboard. She had not needed to take it with her. In Khartoum there were plenty of other mats. Mats with worn faded patches in those places where people pressed their foreheads and stood with wet feet. Majdy opened the cupboard and touched the smooth, velvet material. It stirred in him a childish sense of exclusion, of being left out, like a pleasure he had denied himself and now forgotten the reasons why. She had held the day up with pegs; not only her day but his too. Five pegs. And now morning billowed into afternoon, into night, unmarked.

Thomas Mlanda is a writer, literary theorist and critic.

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