2016 Winning Entry
The houses are very closely built, everyone lives in medium density apartment blocks and the space between buildings is no more than a couple metres. You have direct vision into your prying neighbours lives and they into yours.
The windows consist of glass panes, followed by thick steel barriers, enclosed in wooden louvers. Each layer reacts differently to the explosion.
The first thing you hear is a short, sharp, sonorous spike but that quickly dissipates. It’s body is rapidly expanding. The air is thickening, your energy shifts off-centre.
Its’s tone drops, the vibration is having a more visceral effect than that short, sharp, peak. Eventually it dies, your body is left pulsating.
Your senses are heightened by the adrenaline flooding your body. You need to move but you’re paralysed, your body is trembling.
You don’t think about your life, your memories or anything like that, you don’t think about your loved ones. I guess you simply don’t think.
You don’t have time. You’re numb.
Eyad turns on his back and stares up at the plaster cornices of his childhood bedroom. A miniature figurine of Michelangelo’s Pieta resting on a marble bedside table shakes.
The electricity has been cut.
He grabs his phone, turns on the torch and heads down a long central corridor. The crystal chandeliers of the formal salon and dining room rattle harmoniously. The sounds of missiles, gun fire and airplanes, permeate his parents’ large apartment.
Dressed in his pyjamas, he walks into the kitchen. His mother Amar is sitting on the table cutting open a pomegranate and pouring the seeds into a bowl. A number of salads, dips and fresh bread are placed on the table.
Amar lights up as soon as soon as Eyad enters. Her baby boy, who did not stop breast feeding till he was four, is finally back in his mothers arms after being away for so long. She beckons him to come and sit.
The kitchen is illuminated with a single candle on the table and a mobile led light on the bench.
“This is pure medicine, the greatest fruit in the world,” she says as she continues collecting the pomegranate seeds into a bowl.
“Did you know the Europeans love our fruit and our cotton? They prize our goods for their quality… and our silk!” She continues with an effervescent smile.
“How is dad doing today?” Eyad inquires.
“I’m so glad you decided to come, you’ll enjoy your stay here, eat good food, sleep in clean sheets and I’ll get to take care of you to-oborni [May you bury me; Arabic way of showing love].”
Amar takes a piece of bread, overloads it with hummus and shoves it into Eyad’s mouth. “Here eat this, I just made it with fresh tahini and lots of lemon,“ she insists.
Eyad has no choice but to accept the food.
“I shouldn’t… be here…you should be there,” he says between mouthfuls of hummus. “War is character building,” Amar dismisses.
A louder than normal explosion rocks the building, Eyad jumps up, immediately frazzled. His heart racing, the breath sucked out of his body.
Amar is unperturbed,“There’s nothing to worry about habibi [Darling].”
Eyad paces around the kitchen, “That sounded closer than the others mama! It’s definitely an ISIS rocket!”
“No habibi that is not an ISIS rocket.” She says, slowly drowning the dips in olive oil. “If it was then you could hear the whizzing of the bomb plummeting towards us as it approaches… sounds like a weeeeeeeeeeeeeee, before it explodes…. No no that is the sound of the military bombing ISIS to hell, Allah la yerhamon [May god have no mercy on their souls].”
Other explosives, jet planes and machine guns go off in the distance.
“That one was the Russian jets, do you hear it…do you hear it?” she asks excitedly.
“Amar….ya Amar.” Eyad’s father, Phillipe calls out from the bedroom. His weakened voice dominated by the pervading soundscape.
Immobilised by old age, a catheter and antibiotic drip, he is incapable of helping himself. His world has been reduced to the confines of his bedroom. His only view to the outside world; the neighbours kitchen window.
Amar gets up quickly grabbing the LED torch and heading to his direction. Eyad is left sitting alone in front of the dimly lit kitchen table.
A single candle flickers, the table is beautifully set.
Close to the pomegranate, a large bowl of fattoush salad. Plates of hummus, baba ganoush, fried bread, string cheese and labneh all smothered in olive oil and colourful spices. On the edge, a large brass mortar and pestle with freshly ground garlic.
Amar enters and sits back in front of her bowl of pomegranate. She begins gathering the seeds more aggressively. The spark has left her eyes.
“Did you try the roast capsicum dip?” she asks. “The maid and I roasted 15 kilos of fresh spicy red capsicum to make just a few jars. Our eyes were burnt from the fumes by the end of it.”
“What did the doctor say?” Eyad repeats, now staring directly at her. Amar mumbles inaudibly into the bowl, her gaze unwilling to meet Eyad’s. “Mama!?” Eyad is indignant.
“He spent his life working to give his children an education and a life, now he can die at any moment,” the bowl in her hands trembling. “Like a dog with no dignity,” the bowl falls from her hands. The floor now covered in crimson seeds and shards of china.
Eyad watches in disbelief as Amar drops to the floor to gather the mess. He makes to help her. “Don’t touch the floor you’ll cut yourself!” she warns shrilly.
He ignores her and starts gathering the mess with her. They work quietly for some time. Amar has a moment to compose herself, while Eyad slowly stews.
“Have you changed your mind about eating meat?” She asks teasingly.
Eyad can no longer refrain, “I don’t understand why we don’t just take him to Australia,” his anger heightens, “His doctor is a fucking idiot, his equipment looks ancient! You’re all so fucking stubborn!
Why can’t we-” Suddenly the electricity comes back and a whole new layer of life and energy inhabits the space.
The sound of the TV, fridge and electrical appliances come on all at once. The whole house is brightly lit and the local news plays loudly in the background.
Eyad’s emotions are dampened by the onslaught of technology.
Amar bursts with newfound energy. She jumps to the oven and sets it to preheat then runs out of the kitchen.
Returning a minute later with her mobile phone sandwiched between her ear and shoulder. She begins gathering the ingredients for her signature walnut cake.
Eyad gives up and continues eating.
“Yo-oborni teezek!” she yells joyfully into the phone. She is talking to her daughter Samia in Melbourne. “First thing I wanted to tell you was Uncle Elias didn’t get hit by a missile… No no, he got hit by a stray bullet.”
Amar pours in walnuts as she mixes the batter. “He was standing on his balcony, heard a sound, next thing he knows he’s got a tummy ache and he’s bleeding everywhere.” She puts the batter down.
Grabbing a basket of dirty laundry, she continues, “We took him to the hospital, turns out the bullet was in his intestines. So the doctors stitched him up and left it in there. They’re hoping it passes naturally.”
She begins loading the washing machine. “Second your auntie Nour is going senile. Poor thing is losing her mind. Yes it’s sad but that’s what happens when you don’t get married.”
She grabs a stick and begins pushing it into the washing machine to get it started. “Third your dad is very sick. He could die at any moment. You need to get married and have children before he dies so he can see his grandchildren.” The washing machine begins.
“How are you my darling? What are you eating, who’s cooking for you?“ She plugs the LED light in to recharge.
“I worry about you in Australia. Is it safe? Don’t walk alone at night, don’t go out late, always watch your drink. So many druggies and rapists. When are you coming for a holiday?”
“Darling, I’m wearing the black Moschino…with the mother of pearl and sapphire necklace…or with the rose cut diamond bracelet and earrings?”
“Mum, it’s the fucking dentist!” Eyad is met with a dense silence. “Ok the diamonds!” He concedes. “Perfect!”
Amar wobbles precariously into the room wearing steep designer heels. She has a wide smile on her face.
“Mum are those the Padovan’s?” “No darling.”
“Which one of your other shoes have a heel that high?” “The Padovans…” she admits sheepishly.
“You know you can’t walk in those!” Eyad all but screams in frustration.
“Leave me alone darling I love them. They’re my sitting shoes. I wear them to sit. Maybe I’ll accessorise with a walking cane.”
“They’re like little chandeliers on my feet.”
Eyad is again forced to concede. He has broken his tooth while eating a sunflower seed and needs a crown desperately. He can’t miss the appointment, with all the checkpoints on the road, lack of taxis, it could take ages.
Downstairs the solid metal door to the apartment building swings open.
Eyad is dressed casually in his skinny jeans and jumper. Amar is coping surprisingly well on the uneven paving in her designer high heels, fitted dress and long, thick Astrakhan fur coat, complete with designer handbag and jewelry.
It’s soon after dusk and the light is rapidly dwindling, the streetlights have not been switched on.
Eyad stands on one side of the road trying to hail a taxi while Amar stands at the other side doing the same. Several pass without stopping.
Finally Amar manages to hail one. Eyad walks over. “Where are you going?” asks the taxi driver.
“Just near the Vatican…” Amar begins.
Eyad leans into the taxi, interrupting Amar, “How much to the Vatican Embassy?”
The embassy is not their destination but there are no formal addresses so they must give directions based on landmarks.
“Whatever you think is fair,” the driver responds.
“I’d rather you say a number.” Eyad is firm, he hasn’t played this game in quite some time but he is confident he can win.
“Leave it to God.” “Four hundred Liras.”
“Wallah [I swear to God] no one will take you for less than six hundred but for you I’ll do it for five hundred.” Eyad leans out, “Bullshit mum he’s ripping us off.”
“Yalla habibi [Come on darling] just get in the car.” “Let me handle this mum.”
Eyad leans back into the taxi window. “Four hundred fifty.” “Five hundred.”
“Four hundred seventy five.” “Five hundred.”
Eyad hesitates for a moment then concedes, he doesn’t want to risk losing the cab. He opens the front door and sits upright, Amar nestles into the back.
The car is dimly lit with dark red bulbs on the interior back and front corners of the cab.
Like most local taxis, the rear-view mirror and dashboard are inundated with kitschy beads and fake flowers with LED lights, blue and white beads and plastic vases that say “I Love You” with a big red heart. The car is old and on the verge of collapse. The seats are overly bouncy, it makes surprisingly squeaky and hollow sounding clangs as they head towards the embassy.
They drive for some time, the streetlights flooding through the windows intermittently. Amar is swimming in her fur coat, Eyad distractedly texts on his phone.
The taxi driver watches the road ahead, covering his seat is a large jacket.
“The Vatican Embassy,” he says pulling out a packet of cigarettes from a side pocket and putting one in his mouth.
He offers one to Eyad and Amar who refuse. He lights the cigarette, cracks open the window and looks over to Eyad, “So what brings you there?”
Eyad looks at him, trying to translate the words in his brain from English to Arabic, “Oh… I’m just going… to an appointment.”
“An appointment. What kind of appointment?”
“A dental one, I cracked my tooth while eating a sunflower seed, ” he says gleefully, expecting laughter. He is met with silence.
“And what do you do with yourself?” “I’m uh…a student.”
“And what do you study?” The driver’s eyes now firmly on Eyad.
“Engineering…” Eyad’s sense of unease grows steadily. His eyes are unconsciously drawn over his shoulder. He is searching for what, he doesn’t know. Suddenly his gaze is locked onto the drivers jacket, realising it is a military camouflage jacket.
The driver is an off duty soldier. “And where do you study?” “Uh… overseas.”
“Where overseas?” “Australia.”
“Have you been here long?” “Not long.”
“I see you’re in the army,” Amar interjects with the slightest nod. “God give you strength.” “Thank you madam.”
“Which division are you in?” “10th division.”
“Oh 10th division. That’s a great division.” “Thank you madam.”
“We saw the news of your recent victory over those animals, may they rot in hell, on the TV just the other day…Congratulations.”
“Thank you madam.”
“Yes 10th division is a great division.” “Yes it is, we thank God.”
Amar pulls out a gold and silver laced cigarette case and puts one in her mouth, slowly lighting it. “You’re led by the renowned General X, am I correct?”
“He’s a fierce leader isn’t he?” “Yes madam.”
“Unforgiving in his ferocity,” directly meeting the driver’s gaze through the rear view mirror. “He uh is, yes.”
“You know we’re very good friends with the general… visits for coffee often.” “God bless him, madam.”
“We’re praying very hard for all this craziness to end soon. So many people disappearing for no reason.” “Madam, if I may-“
“Oh we’ve arrived. Just there on the kerb.” “Yes madam.”
The car stops on the side of the road. The taxi driver gets out and opens the door for Amar, almost bowing as she rises out of the vehicle. He drives off.
Eyad holds Amar’s hand for balance as they ascend the stairs to the dental clinic. “Mum, since when did we-”
Black velvet ropes line the entry to the rooftop night club. Flashy European cars are surrounded by scantily dressed, beautiful women and men smoking cigarettes and chatting.
Eyad, dressed smartly in a button shirt and dark chinos, stumbles out of the club and turns the corner. The loud pop music of the rooftop bar is filling the empty streets.
His cheeks are flushed red, his eyes glazed over. He turns a corner to reach the main road.
He comes across a long, softly sloping two lane bridge with pedestrian walkways on either side. It is illuminated by street lamps that give off a dark orange hue.
In the background lies the enormous silhouette of the surrounding mountains. He staggers down the decline of the bridge, drunk and hazy.
The nightclub music has long been drowned out, the air is stagnant. The silence of the mountains overbearing.
In the distance, two small flashes of light illuminate the central mountain. With dark orange flames, mushroom clouds begin to billow.
Several seconds pass before the shock waves of the explosions, tamed by distance, arrive with the softest breeze that lightly rustle his hair and unbuttoned shirt.
Eyad continues walking.
Milliseconds after; the sound of the sonic boom. It arrives with two small thumps, like that of a tabla. Eyad continues walking.