Leave it with me, I’m working on it

Sandra Arnold writes from New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ)

The lights of Dubai look like thousands of pinheads below. We unbuckle our seat belts, accept a glass of water from the flight attendant and let out a long sigh of relief.

“What do you think will piss him off most?” Chris asks. “The fact you escaped his sticky paws, or that you left with your Labour Card and your Alcohol Licence?”

 “Kass’ll be our fly-on-the-wall,” I say. “I only hope the little toad doesn’t take it out on her.”

“She’ll handle him,” says Chris. “Thank God we’re outta there.”

“Yes. But still…” I look at the pattern of tiny red leaves and flowers curling around my fingers, hands and wrists. 

“We made the henna ourselves. From a shrub I have in my garden.”Aisha.

“We ground the leaves.” Thuraya.

“And mixed them with water, lemon juice and rose oil.” Fayza.”

“Each flower is a signature from all of us.”Amal.

“It won’t wash off. The design will only fade as new skin cells replace your old ones.” Fatma.

“So you will never forget us.” Noora.

“As we will never forget you.” Amina.

“Sign here, Sandra. It includes everything we agreed on before you left New Zealand.” Hussein, the CEO, slid the contract across his desk.

“Thanks. I’ll have it back to you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Don’t you trust me?”

I glanced at the print-out then drew a diagram to clarify, yet again, the holiday pay, salary, and gratuity to be paid at the conclusion of my twelve-month contract at the language school in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

He sighed. “Okay, just tell me what to write!”

“Change ‘Single air ticket paid back to country of origin on conclusion of contract’ to ‘Refund for single air ticket…’ considering I’ve already paid for my own tickets.”

“But Sandra, of course we will refund you. We’ve already agreed to that.”

A week later he burst into my classroom to tell me to go to the Police Station to have my fingerprints taken. “For your Labour Card.”

Outside the Police Station the PRO of the company was waiting. He escorted me into a room with ‘Ladies Only’ on the door and waited while a taciturn policewoman in a black abaya took my fingerprints. The next day the school driver dropped me off at the hospital for a blood test. He disappeared, leaving me to navigate the Arabic signs, the corridors, the queues of Indian migrant workers, and the blood test, on my own.

After three more weeks Hussein handed me my Labour Card – with the wrong blood group on it. As I needed this card to open a bank account, buy a car, a mobile phone, have a landline installed in my flat, get the internet connected, a road permit to drive to the UAE, and an alcohol license, I decided the B+ could stay.

Six weeks later he rang to say he had all the documents ready for my Alcohol License and that I was to come to the school immediately to pick them up. We were just about to leave the flat when two men arrived to install the air-conditioner in the kitchen. Half an hour later Hussein rang to ask where we were. “The Police Station will be closed soon,” he wailed. “You’d better hurry or you won’t get your alcohol till after the weekend.”

“The alcohol can wait,” I said. “I’m more concerned about the delays in finalising my contract and Chris’s visa.”

“Sandra! I’m working very hard on these things.”

“So when will they be ready?”

“I’ll get back to you.”

At the Police Station I handed over two kilograms of forms which detailed my nationality, religion, gender, age, country of birth, academic qualifications, length of my contract, salary, address, phone number, the school’s address and phone number and a pile of notarised signatures to verify the language school was a bona fide company and the CEO’s signature was genuine. After scrutinising the documents, which were also written in Arabic, and signing and stamping everything, the policeman asked me for the equivalent of $250 to pay for the license, which looked like a passport, complete with my photo. It stated that each time I bought alcohol the license would be stamped and I could buy up to the value of 10% of my salary, per month.

We returned to the flat to find a gaping hole in the wall around the new air-conditioner. I rang the manager of the apartment to ask when this would be filled.

“No problem madam. Bukrah, inshallah.” Tomorrow, if God wills.

A week later the hole was still there and Chris confessed he’d seen three giant cockroaches marching across the kitchen floor.

“Just leave it with me, Sandra,” said Hussein. “I’ll get back to you.”

The end of the week came and went.

Getting permission for a landline and internet connection necessitated taking a  truck load of documents to the Omantel office, only to be told they weren’t adequate because not only did my signature need to be notarised, so did all the documents of the school, including the CEO’s signature. The official wrote a note in Arabic to Hussein telling him what extra documentation was required. A couple of days later back I went with all the papers to a different Omantel office. The official glared at the pile of papers and said no this wouldn’t do at all. He needed the ORIGINAL documents, not photocopies then he could personally photocopy them on the Omantel photocopier which Madam could see behind him. Madam gathered up the offending documents and left the office. We got into the car and drove to the first Omantel office, found the official who’d written the note in Arabic, spread the photocopies down in front of him and waited with baited breath. He smiled, signed and stamped them and we got permission to have a phone.

The date the phone was due to be installed came and went.

Several calls to the office over the next few weeks met with a calm, “Bukrah, inshallah.” God willed the phone to be installed eventually, but the line didn’t work so we couldn’t get the internet.  

After more weeks of “We’ll get back to you,” I asked Hussein what to do about the Communications Company who didn’t communicate. He promised to sort it out. Next day he assured me, with his hand on his heart, that he had this under control and was working very hard on it. He had not only been to see the manager, he said, he had also phoned the landlord of the apartment building and they had agreed to go to my flat at the end of the week and test the lines. I asked him if they would ring me before they came.

“Of course they will ring you, Sandra! Otherwise how would they know if you were in or not?”

The end of the week came and went.

On Friday morning, Jacob, the caretaker, turned up with a ladder, a pile of stones and plaster, to block the hole in the wall.  We suggested he wait till the men came to do the wiring and they could also remove the air conditioner.

“Oh, they’ve been twice in the last two days,” he said cheerfully, “but you weren’t home.”

At 7.00 on Saturday morning he turned up at the door with the men. That left only the problem of trying to get Omantel to connect the new wiring to the phone.

Next morning one of the Omantel engineers rang to say the lines were connected.

“It’s all finished. The line is connected.”

“No it isn’t, the cable hasn’t been connected.”

“Yes, it has, the men fixed it yesterday.”

“No. The electricians changed the wiring. They didn’t connect it to the phone line.”

“Mmmm. I’ll get back to you.”

A week later Chris rang the manager. “When are the men coming to connect the cable?”

Bukrah, inshallah.”

Two weeks later Chris asked him where the men were. He said he’d get back to us.

More weeks went by. Finally, I rang and found he was in a meeting. Then away having his lunch. When I finally nabbed him he was very apologetic and said it was ludicrous we’d been waiting three months for a connection and he would send people out next morning and tell them they had to find the problem and fix it. They came out and decided the problem might be that our modem was too advanced for their system. Next day someone came out with an external modem to try it, but it didn’t fit, so he said he’d go back and find one that did fit and then get back to us.

Another engineer came out and confessed he was completely stumped and had no idea why the internet wouldn’t work. “However, I’m talking to other people and they are working on finding a solution.”

I told him a very simple solution would be to just give us another phone line.

“Mrs Sandra has just given me a good idea,” he said. “However, there’ll be some paper work first, some departments to get permission from.”

I asked how long that would take. He said when he knew that he would get back to me.” “And it will be the truth because we are not allowed to lie during Ramadan.”

The engineer had to go away for the weekend, but promised to contact us when he got back. He didn’t, so Chris rang him, but he was in a meeting. He promised to ring back. He didn’t. Chris rang back the next morning and he said that he was no longer on the case as it had been transferred back to the original pair of engineers. I rang his manager. It was time for losing cool. When I paused for breath he said he would ring the two men concerned and “expedite the matter”, and “get back to you.” Naturally he didn’t and when I tried to ring him again he didn’t answer the phone.

Later that day another engineer, who had originally been on the case, rang me and said he had been “horrified” to find that three months later our problem had not yet been solved, but he personally would solve it and get back to us. I asked him to say exactly what he intended to do and he said that as everything had been tested and nothing was found to be at fault the only conclusion he could come to was that it was the exchange. “So we will give you a new phone line and get back to you today, inshallah.”

We knew then it really was the end of the line for the phone line. But God had other plans.

“The men are installing the new line as we speak,” the engineer shouted down the cell phone.

When we got back to the flat Chris switched on the computer and to our amazement there was the internet. Minutes later the engineer rang. “Mrs Sandra. Mr Chris. Thanks be to God, I have solved your problem for you!”

We told him we were immensely grateful, both to God and to him.

 Next morning I reminded Hussein that the extension on Chris’s visitor’s visa was about to run out.

“Sandra, I am working on this.”

“But there’s a hefty fine on over-stayers.”

He brought his palms to his shoulders. “We will pay the fine. If Chris has to leave the country to re-enter on a new visitor’s visa we will pay his airfare to Dubai. You can go with him. I’ll give you time off work. This is the company’s problem and we will fix it.”

The day the visa expired he told Chris he had to fly to Dubai that evening. Phillipe, the Director of Studies told him to authorise Chris’s air ticket. We walked into the office as this conversation was going on. He handed Chris the phone.

“Pay your air ticket?” squeaked the voice over the receiver. “Where did you get that idea?”

“Hang on! You said …”

“That we would try to help you with your visa problems…”

“Help me with…?”

 “…but with this attitude it seems you are very ungrateful…”

When we picked pieces of Chris off the walls and reassembled him he had only two hours to get his ticket to Dubai.

The DOS sighed. “Welcome to the Middle East.” He explained that Hussein had probably been over-ruled by the Sheik who owned the school and didn’t want to lose face by admitting it.

While Chris was in Dubai waiting in the airport for a flight back to Oman, I stood by the window of our flat, looking at the cluster of white, flat-roofed houses that snaked up the hill towards the mountains. Washing was drying on lines on some of the roof-tops. Sand-covered satellite dishes were visible on others. A couple of street cleaners were sweeping up the plastic bottles and litter that was deposited daily on the streets. There was no grass visible in the neighbourhood, just dusty, sand-coloured earth along the sides of the high-walled, dilapidated houses. From my window I could see inside some of the cracked concrete yards behind the high walls. This year in a foreign land, away from everything familiar, was meant to help us re-assemble all our broken bits after our daughter, Rebecca, died, but I felt like Alice, falling further down the rabbit hole.

Finally we made it to the alcohol store. This was at the back of a shopping centre, with all the windows painted over. Above the door were two signs: Retail Outlet and Only pass holders may enter these premises. Inside, the Indian manager welcomed us, assured me he would look after us very well and thanked us for choosing his shop. He pointed out the wide range of wines and all the bargains. An assistant carried our purchases to our car. My Alcohol License stated that we must transport the alcohol, under cover, directly to our home. If it was visible we would be stopped by police and fined. If we weren’t able to take it straight home we had to keep the receipt handy to prove we’d just bought it. At last, we staggered up the stairs to our flat, trying not to clink the bottles.  

The flat the company had provided was located in the cheapest part of town, which was very dirty, noisy, and choked with traffic. After the school holidays ended the children returned to the school across the road. At 7.00 one morning we were wrenched out of sleep by the Omani National Anthem threatening to demolish the walls of our bedroom. This was followed by half an hour of  Koran readings bellowed into a microphone by the school principal and several children and blasted over the entire neighbourhood on loudspeakers turned up to brain-melting volume. At 8.00am, the children marched back to their classrooms to the tune of Colonel Bogey.

I asked Hussein to find us another flat. With his hand across his heart he expressed his sorrow that this was impossible as he’d signed the lease for a whole year.

“You could, of course, simply ask the principal to turn the volume down,” he suggested.

I stared at him. “You’re joking, right?”

After trying ear-plugs to drown out the racket I decided it was less painful to go to work.

At school the students complained they couldn’t understand the new receptionist. She spoke only Swahili, they said. The teachers told Hussein he needed to get a new receptionist.

“No! Omani law states we must employ an Omani receptionist.”

“But she is an Omani from Zanzibar. We need one who speaks Arabic and English.”

“Teach her English then.”

“She also disappears into the prayer room and falls asleep, leaving no one at the desk.”

“I’ll tell her she has to make sure someone is at the desk when she takes her breaks.”

Next morning there was the Indian cleaner standing behind the reception desk, his damp grey cleaning rag slung over his shoulder.

Back to Hussein.

“He’s a lovely man. He brings us jasmine every morning, but…”

“Well the cleaners know they aren’t allowed to answer the phone.”

“But he can’t speak Arabic or English either. Just Hindi.”

“Leave it with me.”

“How about just employing a receptionist who can speak English.”

“I am the CEO! Don’t tell me how to do my job!”

Four months after he’d promised to send the letter he’d written guaranteeing the conditions of my contract to the Sheik it still hadn’t been done and that afternoon he was about to leave the country for a month’s vacation. “It isn’t actually necessary for the Sheik to sign it, Sandra. I am a signatory of this company.”

 “You know as well as I do that unless the Sheik’s signature is on a document it’s not legal.”

“It will be signed and on your desk this afternoon, before I leave”

It wasn’t, of course, so I asked the company’s accountant, Mahmoud, to come to the school to see me. He said he’d never seen any such letter. Not only that, the Sheik had not signed my contract.

“In that case, whose signature is on the contract?”

He breathed deeply then asked me to send a copy of the contract so he could check out the signature. “But Mrs Sandra, why are you claiming a refund on your airfare back to New Zealand?   Hussein told me you wouldn’t claim the airfare to New Zealand.”

“What?”

“He said you wouldn’t claim the return portion because you’d already paid for your flights as part of a round-the-world ticket. You’re going on a holiday to Brazil and the USA when your contract expires, yes?”

“I’m not expecting you to pay for the trip to Brazil. Just to refund the cost of the fare from Oman back to New Zealand.”

“The company doesn’t give refunds,” he said. “Only tickets. We can give you a ticket at 50% discount of the full fare.”

“Hussein gave me a refund of my fare from New Zealand to Oman,” I said, “and at the end of my contract I want him to refund the portion of my ticket from Oman to New Zealand, as my contract states.”

Mahmoud’s frown deepened. “He had no right to give you a refund,” he said. “We don’t give refunds. Only tickets. I have his letter in my office. It states you agreed not to claim your return airfare. He signed it. I can show you if you like.”

“Is my signature on that letter?”

“No, but Hussein’s is.”

 “Why would I agree to not claiming my return airfare when it is in my contract, which supposedly has been signed by the Sheik?”

Sweat dripped down his neck. “Mrs Sandra, send me the contract and all your documents by fax and I’ll get back to you.”

 Next morning I sent a twelve-page fax. A week later when he finally answered my call he said he was waiting for Hussein to return so we could all have a meeting with the Sheik. “I’ll get back to you with the time of the meeting,” he assured.

The meeting didn’t materialise. Neither did Chris’s visa. The documents were returned from the Ministry of Immigration and rejected on the grounds “Man can bring wife. Woman can not bring husband.” Hussein said he was trying to arrange an appointment with the Minister to “find a way round this.” The appointment didn’t materialise either.

Chris was asked to teach a Master of Engineering course at Sultan Qaboos University and a temporary work visa was arranged for him there. We flew to Dubai early on a Wednesday morning and at the airport Chris faxed a copy of the exit stamp back to the PRO at the university. The PRO told him the visa would be ready on Saturday afternoon “… inshallah”. We were very nervous in case God was extra busy with visas that weekend and Chris might end up staying in Dubai for several days, or weeks, or months, or years, or the rest of his life. However, to our surprise it was ready when it was supposed to be.

 Hussein had assured us before he left the country that he had booked a plane ticket and hotel for the new teacher we were expecting from Australia. Leaving nothing to chance I rang Head Office to ask when we could expect him.

“What ticket? What teacher?”

Stifling a scream I said, “We have new classes starting and no teacher. Get him here ASAP.”

Martin, the teacher, was whisked from Australia to Oman in a flash. When he arrived at the school he told us he had almost not got here because the e-mail from Head Office didn’t actually state where it was from and he deleted it. Fortunately it had also been sent to his father who phoned him to tell him he had to get on a plane the next day. I told him he could have a few hours sleep before his class started that evening.

Two days later Martin was beaten up at a party by an American marine, after saying something unflattering about President Bush. As the teachers were easing him into a car next morning to take him to hospital a reporter from the local newspaper turned up and demanded an interview about the English Language programmes the school was offering. I explained the DOS and the CEO were overseas and suggested she come back in a couple of weeks, after making an appointment.

“I have my article almost completed,” she wailed. “I only need to ask you a couple of questions.”

An hour later she was still talking and scribbling, but it kept my mind of Martin’s smashed face and the consequences if one of those kicks had landed a few centimetres nearer his temple. The next day a memo arrived from the Sheik stating the company would not pay for Martin’s medical treatment as “alcohol was involved.” 

The weekend before the Islamic New Year we visited archaeological sites with the Historical Society. Other people in our group discussed whether or not Saturday or Sunday would be the New Year’s Day holiday. The Islamic New Year is based on the cycles of the moon. A committee within one of the Ministries –  The Committee of Moon Sightings – had to personally view the new moon before the New Year could be announced. However, my students said they were sure the New Year would be Saturday and so they were all going home to their villages then and would come back to school on Sunday. At midnight on Friday we were woken by the phone ringing. It was Phillipe to say Hussein had told him that the moon had not yet been sighted so all the teachers had to come to work on Saturday, even though there would be no students.

It took many frustrating months to get the threads of our lives connected in Oman, but in the end these strands became a new kind of normal. Chris was less sanguine, but, apart from the bureaucratic hurdles, I had no regrets about staying. My colleagues and students were lovely. We’d  had wonderful adventures travelling around this ancient and fascinating land. The year had fulfilled its purpose. Too soon it was time to start the process of unravelling.

First we went to the insurance office to transfer the insurance of our car to the two colleagues who were buying it. Then we drove to the Police Station to complete the transfer of ownership. On the way I commented that I was relieved we had not had a car accident. We had never become used to seeing mangled cars on the side of the road and the occasional dead body. An ambulance service had been launched that year and the ambulances were stationed at various trouble spots along the roads. However, as the hard shoulders were often clogged with speeding drivers, the ambulances couldn’t always get to the scene of an accident in time.

We were discussing this when a Landcruiser came charging round the roundabout into the side of our car. We tumbled out, speechless. The Emiratis in the Landcruiser shook our hands then called the Police. At the Police Station the policemen, who spoke no English, wrote out the report based on what the Emiratis told them and indicated the accident was our fault. They said the Emiratis wanted us to pay them some money or they would take us to court. At that point I called an Omani friend and in half an hour he arrived. He asked the Emiratis why they wanted money from us when we already had comprehensive insurance. They looked surprised and said the Police hadn’t told them. They shook hands again and left. The policeman told us to come back next day to collect the report for the insurance company.

Next day we trooped back to the Police Station. No one had written the report. Fortunately, there was a Police Inspector there who spoke good English so he got it sorted out. He also told us the other driver was to blame as he was going too fast and he would be fined.

With just two weeks left I still didn’t know whether the company would refund my airfare home. On the day of my students’ graduation, Hussein, with his hand over his heart made an emotional speech about what a great teacher I was. The students clapped and presented me with gifts: a beautiful wooden box engraved with my name and the dates of the course, containing a silver and amber Bedouin necklace and a piece of weaving. Amina gave me a little box with a gold emblem of Oman. In tears, she asked if she could kiss me. As the other women came up to kiss me the male students stood discreetly at the back of the room. They stayed there while I went outside to be photographed with the women. As we arranged ourselves in front of the school Amina put her mask back over her face and apologised that she could not join us in the photographs. “But I will send you a photo of my son,” she whispered.

As the men came out to be photographed with me, Nagwa, Hussein’s assistant who was taking the photographs, told me to wait behind after the men returned to the library.

“Take my advice,” she said. “Do not leave Oman before they pay you or you won’t see a cent.”

I stared at her.

“I heard Hussein on the phone talking to Mahmoud. He has a letter for you. I think he’ll give it to you before he leaves for Egypt. I dare not say more.”

Next morning Phillipe gave me Hussein’s letter. But by then he had scarpered. The letter stated the company would pay my final month’s salary, holiday pay and gratuity, but not refund my airfare as “it is company policy to only give tickets.”

Phillipe averted his eyes. “I’ve done the best I could,” he muttered. “I did tell you to accept the sheik’s offer of a 50% discount on the ticket.”

It was time to saw this issue off the end of the universe. When I had arrived at the school a year earlier, one of the teachers discovered, the day before she left Oman, that her six months’ overtime pay was not included in her final payment. I now recalled the memory of this woman frothing at the mouth with impotent rage. I rang Mahmoud and asked him to pay my final salary a week before I left.

“Of course, Mrs Sandra. No problem.”

My colleague, Kass, rolled her eyes. “Don’t believe him.”

On the day the payment was due, Phillipe stuck his head around the door of my office as I was packing up files and teaching notes. He said Mahmoud had just been on the phone to say he didn’t have any cheques signed by the sheik. Mahmoud had also pointed out, Phillipe said, that although my course with the Ministry of Higher Education was finished and my students had gone, I was still officially under contract so I needed to do more teaching and Mahmoud had suggested I take over the evening classes. What did I think?

What I thought was to stuff Phillipe in my car and drive with him and Kass across town to Head Office, ignoring Phillipe’s protests that while he could understand I was upset, he was sure his own presence was not really required and that this situation could have been averted had I accepted the Sheik’s generous offer of 50% of the return airfare in the first place. No doubt, Kass had influenced me to hold out for more, he said, ignoring Kass’s glare, but I must surely realise all this confrontation would get me nowhere. Had my year in the Gulf taught me nothing? And in the event of a meltdown at Head Office, he, Phillipe, could not intervene. After all, he still had to work here and these guys could make his life unbearable and after all it was only money.

Mahmoud was sitting in his chair behind his desk with a smile pasted on his face. He produced the book of blank cheques and smiled again. He would send a driver to the town where the sheik was staying and get him to sign a cheque and then the driver would return. The cheque might be in my account on Thursday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday. Anyway, sometime soon. Inshallah.

“So why can’t you just give it to me in cash?”

“Unfortunately I do not have the cash.”

“You’re telling me that despite this company owning hotels and travel agencies, you don’t have enough cash to pay me.”

“That’s correct.”

“In that case,” I said, “Chris will fly to Brazil alone for our friend’s wedding and I will stay in Oman by myself until all the money is in the bank. Until it is, I will withhold my end-of-course reports for the Ministry of Higher Education and I’ll need to send an e-mail to every student and the Ministry to explain why.”

Mahmoud’s smile frayed round the edges as he weighed up the odds that I was bluffing. Phillipe’s sharp intake of breath convinced him otherwise. With his smirk now a straight line he opened a drawer and pulled out some cash. Then picked up the phone and asked for the balance to be brought over that evening.

“It will be in your account in the morning.”

 “Good.”

 He could barely contain his annoyance. “When you leave Oman the PRO must accompany you to the airport to cancel your visa. You must give him your Labour Card.”

“Of course.”

“And your Alcohol Licence.”

“Naturally.”

“And you will need to teach evening classes next week.”

“No problem.”

“And Ahmed will need to inspect your flat.’

“Because…”

“Because you might have broken something.” His composure was returning. “When are you leaving? In a week, you said?”

“I’ll check the date and time of the flight and let you know.”

Next morning ten minutes before the bank was due to close for the weekend I watched Mahmoud hand over the cash, minus my return airfare, to the teller. Then I transferred the money to New Zealand while he looked on. Before he left he said, “Ahmed will be doing his inspection after the weekend, so make sure you leave the flat clean.”

“Absolutely,” I smiled.

We went back to the flat and packed our cases. Early next morning my three colleagues took us to the airport. Before we boarded I said to them, “You showed me how to laugh again. I’ll always be grateful to you for that.”

Kass hugged me. “I’ll be leaving this place soon. I’ll find myself a place in the world with four seasons and things to look forward to.”

“Forget all this crap,” Dom said.

“But don’t forget us,” said Marty. “And all our good times.”

Oman. Brazil. The USA. New Zealand. Deserts. Oceans. Mountains. Rivers. Forests. Plains. Cities. Roads.

Our city. Our road. Our house. Our garden. Our daughter’s cats on the front step, disdainful and unforgiving of our desertion. They are round and fat. Melanie, our neighbour, has taken good care of them. The dog, disbelieving at first, then all ecstatic legs and tail.

Chris opens our front door and we carry our cases in. Everything is the same and everything is different. Melanie has lived here with her children for a whole year. The living room has a different smell. A different kind of energy. I go to Rebecca’s room. Chris follows. The books and pens and oil pastel sketches on her desk are exactly as we left them a year ago. Her clothes still hang in her cupboard, unused. I touch them with my hand. And hold the sleeve of her jacket to see if it still has her smell. It doesn’t. Her calendar is still on April, the month she died. Her room is silent. We’ve been away for a whole year and come back again. But our daughter is still dead. “She’ll always be dead,” I say to Chris. He stands behind me and puts his arms around my shoulders. From the window we can see the rowan tree where we buried her ashes. It has reached the top of the fence.

Next morning I open an email from Kass. My circumventing the departure procedure had resulted in Kass having to bear the brunt of Hussein’s fury. He told her he would not pay her final month’s salary, nor was she to be allowed to leave the country to go on her planned holiday to Venice. If she attempted to leave, he threatened, she would be listed as an absconder and arrested. She went to the British Embassy which promptly informed him otherwise. She left the company and the country and flew to a new job in Greece. His last act of vengeance was to withhold her salary until she was at the airline check-in counter.  Dom and Marty were refused the letter of release they needed to take up a lucrative job with another company in Oman. They left for Thailand.

The next email is from Phillipe, demanding the immediate return of my Labour Card. The Ministry would not allow the company to employ another teacher until the Labour Card was returned.  As I read it I thought I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when Mahmoud, Hussein and the Sheik received their roasting from the Ministry. Leaving a week early like that was a breach of my contract, Phillipe thundered. Leaving without telling him was very unprofessional and would make it difficult for him to convince the companies to pay other teachers at the end of their contracts. I should be mindful of my responsibility to him especially considering the amount of time he had devoted to my contractual issues and nor should I forget how he had supported me in Mahmoud’s office and therefore I owed it to him to contact a courier forthwith and return the Labour Card without further delay.

I ponder on the best response. Ah yes.

“Leave it with me, Phillipe. I’ll get back to you, inshallah.”

Then I write a reply to Amina’s email. I tell her the photo of her baby is beautiful. And yes, I do think he looks like her. And yes, the flower she drew on my wrist is still there, though after four weeks the henna has started to fade a little. And no, I won’t forget her. And yes, I’m happy to be home.

Sandra on a camel in the Wahiba Desert

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Danielle Legault Kurihara explains how dogs broke down cultural and linguistic barriers for her.

Editor of The Write Life, Clare Morris is constantly searching for fresh and innovative voices
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