Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Athens Interlude

Blue skies. White steps. The peevish ‘preet! of a traffic cop’s whistle. Horns honking like angry geese. Fumes creep into my nostrils and curl around the fresh-baked smell of koulouria from across the square. The babble of people swarm in and out of the Metro station. I lean back against the cardboard I’m lying on, close my eyes and let the thin winter sun tickle my face. Its warmth feels so familiar. If I try hard, I can almost imagine I’m back home. Back to the ‘old me’.

I open my eyes and watch the feet going past, each on their way somewhere else. Rushing to work, late for a date, going to a lesson, meeting friends for coffee.

Two small sneakers with the laces half undone stop in front of me. Their new-shoe shine has been scuffed off, and they dance awkwardly on the spot like they’re trying to find the courage to do something. A little kid, maybe five years old, bends down and nervously hands me a crumpled paper bag, then looks to his mum for approval. I look inside, then up into his face, and nod my thanks for the half-eaten cheese pie.

Sometimes, people give me food or some spare coins. Even a smile before going on their way. Other times, it’s just angry words I only half understand.

But most don’t even look at me. I’m no more important to them than the empty coffee cups, unwanted flyers and dead leaves swept into the gutter. Just another part of the landscape that they filter out in this dirty, noisy city that’s as old as history. They feel safer that way, I suppose, more ‘comfortable’.

I’m not the boy I used to be. That boy, and the life he had, seem like a dream now.


That boy had a family, a home, a good life, hopes and dreams despite the troubles beyond our walls. He had an Xbox, home cooked meals, friends, homework, a mobile phone, football boots, piano lessons...

Maama was so proud when I was offered a place at the Damascus High Institute for Music and Theatre. Made all those hours practicing scales and plonking my way through the Arabic and Western classics worthwhile. Her own ambitions, stopped in their tracks when she married, were born again through me. The first time I played ‘Für Elise’ without a single mistake, she’d burst into tears. Imagine how happy she was when her boy had got into the country’s top music school.

It closed down just a few months after I enrolled. The chords and harmonies that echoed in its practice rooms silenced by the crescendo of gunfire and explosions that got louder, closer, more deadly every day.


The music still lives inside me. Even this ‘new me’ that hasn’t showered in months, gets as much compassion as a stray dog and has to beg or rummage through the garbage for food. Music is the one thing that reminds me that I’m still human. Just about.

I cram the rest of the cheese pie into my mouth and wipe my fingers on my jeans. I reach into my pocket, pull out a grubby piece of paper. It’s marked where it’s been folded and refolded a thousand times. Notes and time signatures dance along the lines on the page. I lay it on the ground and carefully smooth it out.

My fingers mimic familiar movements on the keys and, just for a moment, I’m back in our living room. Practicing while Maama stirs a pot of thick, sweet coffee, her head nodding with the tempo and a quiet smile dancing on her lips.  

I can almost smell the cardamom cookies she bakes to serve with the coffee.

My older brother Sameer left one night and never came home. He’d gone to Europe, Maama said. He’d send for us. But her eyes were red, and the shadows under them got darker with every day we heard no news.

One day, Baba came home smudged with dust and blood. A bomb had exploded in Rawda Square, he said. Things would only get worse, he said. I had to leave. Now.

Maama’s face crumpled. “No! Not my baby. He’s only 17. He’s just a boy.” A sudden staccato of gunfire a few streets away silenced her. My father looked at us, empty-eyed, a once proud man broken by his inability to protect his family.

Two days later, I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known. Bundled into a truck in the middle of the night, clutching a bundle of pastries Maama had spent a tearful afternoon baking, trying to soak every ounce of her mother’s love into the dough. Baba hung his head as he handed the driver a bulging envelope. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t – look at me.

The journey was a blur. We travelled by night, often with no lights, through places I’d never heard of. After days (or was it weeks?) on the road, we reached the coast. I spilled my guts in the open boat crossing the sea. Then, we were vomited onto the beach of an island where people looked like me but spoke a different language. Some brought us day-old bread, olives, bean stew and dry clothes. Others spat at us as we walked into town.

An overwhelmed policeman with a nicotine-yellowed moustache demanded our papers. I had none, except the music in my pocket.  


Athens is my home, for now. No camp or shelter for me. Officially, I don’t exist. I sleep in the wreck of an abandoned school. Fifty of us to a room with rows of filthy mattresses covering every inch of the concrete floor. No running water or electricity. We make what we can with the rice, lentils, oil and bottles of water kind-faced volunteers bring us, cooking our meals over a flickering camping stove.

It’s better than sleeping on the streets. Or selling ourselves to perverts in the park.


Back at the squat, I have to escape. Too many people. Too much noise. Too many smells.

I climb the stairs, picking my way past the junkies lying dead-eyed on the landing. I’ve never come this far before, fearing they’d infect me with their poison. Huh, needn’t have worried. They don’t know I’m there. All they know is the temporary escape running like sludge through their veins.

On the second floor, a breeze ruffles my hair and bangs a classroom door. All the windows are broken. Graffiti I can’t read covers the walls. I shiver and pull my jacket closer around me against the chill.

My footsteps crunch over the broken glass that lines the corridor. I open a door and look inside. Almost empty. Just a battered piano stool. No piano. A space waiting to be filled.

I pull the stool to the windowsill, sit down and take out my sheet of music. My fingers find their place and start to move. ‘Für Elise’ fills my mind, and I swear I can smell cardamom cookies.

The old me still lives, bound by hope and the music in my head to my home. A place where I am safe and loved. A place which probably no longer exists.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Black Rose

Holding her breath, she swept the fine brush across her half-shut lids. First one, then the other. A steady hand and patience were key if she wanted to avoid that all-too-familiar ‘panda after a rough night on the town’ look.

She closed her eyes and counted to twenty under her breath, waiting for the eyeliner to dry and praying it would form a perfectly even kitten flick on both sides, making her look irresistible rather than someone with a slight squint.

Susie opened her eyes and examined the result. Not bad, not bad at all.

With the tip of her tongue protruding ever so slightly from the corner of her mouth just below the tender spot where her lips met and laughter lines should have been, she made the final adjustment.

“There,” she said to herself, not daring to smile with satisfaction for fear of spoiling her handiwork. The wide-eyed stare of South London’s answer to the 1950s Hollywood starlets that Lee admired so blinked back at her from the speckled bathroom mirror.

“So far, so good.”

Her expertly applied make-up hid most of the bruise blossoming on her temple. What it couldn’t conceal would be artfully covered by a ‘random’ tendril of her usually drab brown hair, which tonight shone like a polished chestnut.

Now for the finishing touch. A red pencil carefully outlined her lips, giving her a perfect Cupid’s bow, then she filled it in with ‘Drop Dead Red’ to produce a full pout. She’d have to take care how she ate and drank tonight - she didn’t want anything to spoil her lipstick, as least not before Lee did with his ardent kisses.

The dress he’d picked out for her clung to her body in a delicious, unfamiliar way. So different to the modest, unassuming clothes he usually liked to see her in. She didn’t have to dress like a slut to be beautiful, he always said.

He was right, of course. He always was.

But tonight he’d surprised her with the little black dress, and she’d surprised herself at how good it made her feel. It was Audrey Hepburn classy-sexy, rather than in-your-face Jane Russell tussle in the hay. The neckline gave a fleeting glimpse of her burgeoning bosoms, without resorting to the sluttish heaving that enraged him so. The fabric embraced her figure gently without betraying the small bump in her belly. A double strand of pearls finished the look, and helpfully covered the scratch on the side of her throat.

She looked sweet, vulnerable, in need of protection. Just the way Lee wanted her.

The door handle rattled angrily, impatiently.

“What the hell are you doing in there?” came a voice tinged with annoyance from the other side. “Why’ve you locked the door? I’ve told you about that, haven’t I?”

“Just a minute, sweetheart,” she replied. “I want to surprise you.”

“Well, get a move on. We haven’t got all night.”

Susie slipped on her brand new peep-toe stilettoes, smoothed her skirt, and patted her hair. Turning, she smiled to herself at the thought of Lee’s reaction, turned the key and opened the door with a flourish. “Ta da!”

She was met with a stony glare.

“We’re not going to a Vicars and Tarts party, you know.”

Susie’s face fell.

“When I bought you that dress, I thought you had the class to carry it off without looking like some kind of street walker. You think I want to be seen out in public with…  with… that?” he gestured angrily at her torso.

“But, but…   I thought you’d like it,” Susie stuttered, fighting the tears that threatened to ruin her carefully constructed face.

“Like it? Thought I’d like being seen in public with a whore, putting it all out there, advertising herself as anyone’s for the couple of drinks?”

Lee, small but wiry and strong, grabbed her wrist and pulled her close.

“If that’s what you think I’d like, let’s see how you like being treated like a whore,” he snarled. Spinning her round and pushing her forward over the sofa, he roughly yanked her skirt up past her stocking tops and fumbled with her panties.

“Lee, please don’t!” she cried, her eyeliner now seeping down the creases in her frightened face.

“Shut up, bitch.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you angry. I just… just…  aaaah!”

He wasn’t listening. He was lost in a frenzy of lust and fury, grunting like an animal.

“Is that what you like, you dirty whore? I treat you like a queen, give you everything you need, but it’s wasted on you. You’re nothing but a common tart. Is that how you want me to see you? Fine, let’s see how you like it. Maybe we can put you on the street corner when I’m done with you, as you like it so much?”

His fingers dug painfully into the soft flesh at the front of her thighs. Susie tried to raise her head to protest, but was shoved back down roughly, leaving her to softly weep and wait for it to be over.

It didn’t take long.

Re-buckling his belt and wiping the sweat from his top lip, Lee pulled her up.

“Now, for God’s sake, go and clean yourself up. Wipe that muck off your face, change your shoes and put your coat on. It’s Valentine’s night and we’ve got dinner reservations.”


From his bedroom window, Jake watched as Lee frog-marched Susie through the cold night to their car. She seemed smaller, somehow, perhaps because of the big coat swamping her figure, and her steps were hesitant, like a nervous bird.

He knew why, of course. He’d heard it all. Hard not to, through the walls of the old Victorian terrace that held their flat, his, and three more neighbours he never saw. The raised voice, pleading tears, grunts, the angry banging of the sofa against the wall.

It didn’t take a writer’s imagination to work out what had happened.

What he couldn’t fathom was why. Why she stayed. Why she didn’t just walk away. Seek refuge somewhere. Perhaps with him.

He sighed. He knew Lee’s game. The daily wearing away of her self-esteem. Convincing her that she was worth nothing in her own right. That he was the only one that could possibly see anything in her. That everything bad that happened to her, she brought upon herself.

He knew it only too well. He’d seen it up close and personal. How it had worn away at his mother’s sense of self, until there was nothing but a shell left, limp of emotion like a rag doll, ready to jump or flinch at the smallest criticism. To cow-tow to his father’s quixotic whims and to hang on his every word for a hint of approval, like an over-eager puppy dog.

Until one day, she was no more. Nothing left of her but a sad red stain spreading over the white bathroom tiles. Then, the sympathy of neighbours for the poor bereaved husband. The same neighbours who’d turned a blind eye to the bruises, a deaf ear to the night-time accusations, incriminations, smashes and thuds.

The platitudes came in floods at the funeral: “You did everything you could”, “She wasn’t a well woman”, “She didn’t have the strength”. Only he, sitting in the corner in a stiff collared shirt bought for the occasion, knew that his mum had once had the strength, but it had been drained from her by the years. Years with Him.

He was just a kid back then. Powerless. Now, he was older, stronger, smarter. He would not let the same fate claim Susie.


Susie didn’t say much at dinner. She didn’t need to. Lee ordered for her, as always. She didn’t dare tell him she didn’t fancy steak.

She chewed diligently at the meat, trying to ignore the twinge of her bruised jaw, just as she had tried to avoid Lee’s critical glare as she picked at her prawn cocktail starter. The lemon juice in the dressing had made her lip smart, and she really didn’t like prawns all that much. She looked up to see Lee staring pointedly at her.

“Eat up, princess. I’m spending good money on that sirloin. For you. You need the iron. Got to look after yourself, and my boy.”

“It might be a girl,” she murmured under her breath, careful not to be heard above the tinkling piano in the corner of the restaurant packed with couples dressed up to the nines, desperate to convince themselves that they were all madly in love.

The thought flitted across her mind that Lee’s treatment earlier that evening probably did more harm to the child inside her than a slight iron deficiency that would be easily corrected with a prescription from the family doctor. She dismissed the it before she could acknowledge it, fearful that he could read her conscious thoughts and take revenge for her imaginary betrayal. Again.

Her eyes strayed down to the single red rose laying on the linen tablecloth next to her dessert fork. It had come with a card, obviously dictated to the florist, in a curling baroque script that bore no resemblance to Lee’s practical, heavy hand:

Forever mine.

Susie shuddered inwardly as she read it again. Others would probably find it romantic in its simplicity.

To her, it felt like a life sentence.


Jake opened his bedside table drawer and pulled out a schoolboy’s exercise book, a pen, and a door key. He scribbled a note on the lined page, ripped it out and folded it carefully. On the windowsill sat a vase of deep red roses, the colour of blood that’s delivered its load of oxygen, standing in water tinged with ink to make the petals even darker. He rose to his feet, took one, and tapped the droplets from its stem. Wrapping it in a napkin, he left his apartment and headed down the hall to Lee and Susie’s =front door.

He slipped the key easily into the lock.

Averting his eyes from the mess by the coffee table, embarrassed by the evidence of Susie’s humiliation, he headed for the bedroom. She always went to bed long before Lee, to catch some peace before he switched off the TV and woke her with his nightly demands, whether she was in the mood or not.

Jake gently laid the rose on her pillow. Beneath it, the page from his exercise book with the simple message: “You’re not alone”.


“You’re a lucky girl,” crowed Lee. “A new outfit, flowers, dinner at a fancy restaurant. Who else would do all that for you? No-one can say Lee Lawrence doesn’t deliver on the romance front.”

Satisfied that he was indeed God’s gift to womankind, Lee threw his jacket onto the back of the coach, loosened his tie and slumped down onto the cushions.

The TV screen blossomed with a click of the remote and he settled down for a well-deserved couple of hours soaking up sports scores, action movies and maybe a little porn if he could find anything tasty. He’d earned it, after all.

He refused to let Susie’s moronic clattering in the kitchen break his mellow mood. All was right in his world. He had a good job, a nice flat, and a son on the way. Everything was going according to plan.

Well, almost everything. Susie was where things fell short. Every now and then, she needed a little reminder of her rightful place. If he was honest it was those little reminders that kept him interested, kept the spice in their relationship. The surge of testosterone that fueled their fun and games before dinner made him feel powerful, invincible. Just thinking idly about it now awoke a stirring in his groin, even after a big meal and a bottle of wine. Maybe he’d be back for a replay a bit later.

She loved it, he was sure of that. All women fantasised about being ‘taken roughly’, didn’t they? Just look at the sales figures of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. All women have a little whore in them, a bit that loves to be dominated.

Yes, he’d definitely be giving her another seeing-to in an hour or two. It was Valentine’s Day, a special occasion, after all.

He smiled benevolently as Susie placed a steaming cup of coffee topped with cream on the table next to him.

“Irish?” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

She nodded mutely and showed him the hip flask in her other hand.

“Good girl,” he cheered, slapping her behind as she turned to go. Limping slightly, she crossed the room and put the pewter flask back in its place.

Silly cow, thought Lee affectionly. So clumsy. Must have tripped over something in the kitchen. She was always doing stuff like that. Walking into doors, falling downstairs, burning herself on the stove.

“Off to bed with you now, darling,” he chirruped. “You need your beauty sleep. Just do me a favour. Keep those stockings on.”


Already nauseous, Susie almost choked on the thought of further violation and fear for the child growing in her belly. She was sure Lee’s nightly assaults would eventually make her miscarry – and then she’d in for more punishment for not taking care of ‘his’ baby.

There was no escape. Just the promise of a few snatched hours of sleep before his fumbling woke her and the nightmare continued.

Murmuring a meek “goodnight” she went straight to bed without bothering to wash off what was left of her make-up. All she wanted was to sleep, escape, if only for a little while.

She flopped onto the bed with its freshly laid crimson sheets without turning on the light. Kicked her shoes into the corner, shrugged her date dress onto the floor, lifted the quilt and slid between the sheets.

As she lay her head on the pillow, something tickled her cheek. Something that smelled green, fresh, like the park after a summer shower. Puzzled, she switched on the bedside light. A rose, not perfect but exquisite in its imperfection, lay on her pillow. Deep red, almost black, it would not have been visible against the dark pillowcase if it hadn’t been for the scrap of paper beneath it.

A wave of realisation crashed over her, bringing with it shock, fear, disbelief, guilt, and… yes…  a small thrill of excitement.

She knew who had left it there.

Jake, their wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly nerd of a next-door neighbour. The one who could be trusted to water the plants and accept deliveries when they were away, but who had never once looked either of them directly in the eye.

Jake, who kept himself to himself, made no unreasonable demands and could always be relied on for a cup of sugar or handful of teabags when she ran out.

Jake, the ultimate Beta Male whose name Lee could never remember.

Jake, who’d gone on about the language of flowers when she called round with a hastily-scribbled Christmas card a couple of months back.

With trembling fingers, she took the piece of folded paper and opened it. Inside, a simple message, an expected one even, but one which gave her hope.

Lee mustn’t see the rose. A flower from another man – even if it was “just Jake” – would be enough to send her to the Accident & Emergency Department at St Swithun’s. That was the last thing she needed.

She scrunched the note into a ball and stuffed it under the mattress. Then, taking the bloom by its long stem, and carefully avoiding its sharp thorns, she placed it like a sleeping child under her pillow. Right next to the elegant filleting knife Jake had ordered from the Chef’s Shop after taking those online cookery classes.

Its blade gleamed as Susie lightly ran her index finger along its sharp edge. The soft flesh opened cleanly and beads of blood welled up. She smiled, put the pillow back and lay down, sucking at the pad of her finger and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long.


7.30am: Jake was already up, teacup in hand, peering at his computer screen. A soft knock roused him and he went to the door and peered through the spy-hole.

Susie stood there, without a scrap of make-up to hide the fresh bruise on her cheek or the older one at her temple. With her hair gathered in a messy ponytail, clad in sweats and with an unfamiliar twinkle in her eye, she looked like a tomboy who’d been in a schoolyard brawl - and won. There was an energy about her, an air of triumph, radiating off her like he’d never seen before.

She grinned shyly as he opened the door, then thrust a red rose still in its florist’s wrapper at him.

“Thought you’d like another one for your collection,” she announced. “Put it in ink with your other ones. You never know who’s going to need a bit of revenge next.”

Jake took the flower and nearly dropped it in surprise at its unexpected weight. Inside its plastic wrapper nestled a sleek, sharp knife – one that matched the empty hole in the butcher’s block on his kitchen counter. Its blade was dull and sticky, stained almost black, like the roses on his windowsill.

He looked a question at Susie.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then patted her stomach and nodded. “Rose says thank you, too.”


It was a week before anyone noticed something was amiss. The Lawrences were a quiet couple, not given much to socialising. None of the neighbours paid much attention to their disappearance, not even the solitary writer who lived next door.

Eventually, the smell oozing from their apartment raised the alarm. Next door no longer had the spare key – or so he said. They had to break the door down.

Everything seemed normal. A tidy kitchen, a forgotten coffee cup on the table next to the coach, towels neatly folded in the bathroom. Even the sheets were laid on the bed… until closer inspection revealed they were pulled over the butchered body of Lee Lawrence. Their deep red hue was the colour of his death. The colour of black roses.


Four hundred miles away, a young woman sat in a Glasgow tattoo parlour grimacing through the sting of the artist’s pen as it bit into the distended flesh above her belly button.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” asked the pierced and painted girl with a Rockabilly hairdo, looking up from her work. “Maybe we should wait until… you know… after?”

“It’s OK,” replied the woman in the chair as she craned her neck to seen the outline etched on her stomach. “I can take the pain – I’ve had plenty of practice.

“Anyway, what’s a rose without a few thorns?”