He was in my room again, last night. I felt him there. I felt him stroking my hair, pushing it back from my eyes. I didn't open them, to check, didn't need to. The weight exerted, the roughness of the fingertips, the way it glided over with the first three digits, the little finger joining in once the hand had passed my forehead ... I knew it well. I knew it was Baba.
I decided I wouldn't tell Mosab today. When I used to mention Baba, he would shout and get angry, but lately he's just been ignoring me. I used to think he was no longer ready to entertain what he saw as my budding madness, but Mohammed says it's because that girl from Idlib hasn't been around this week. He thinks they've left the City. I feel sad for Mosab; he only smiled when he was with her.
A distant rumble roused me as these thoughts swam around in my head, prying my eyelids open. The wind was gently blowing the lace curtains, sending their horses into an undulating gallop before the rising sun, on the periphery of my room, in the periphery of my mind. I waited for the next rumble; they always came in twos.
"Karim, are you awake?"
"Yes," I said, stretching.
I turned to look at Mohammed, who was standing in the doorway. He smiled.
"Then come downstairs, it's not every day you get to eat bread."
The second rumble came. It was far enough away that that was all I could hear. No screams, no sirens. Just the rumble, and that was it.
"It's still warm," I said, grasping the bread in my hands when I arrived at the table. "And soft too!"
Mohammed ruffled my hair as he walked past. He took a seat beside me.
"Then eat it before it gets cold." I didn't need to be told twice; it had been a long time since I'd seen, let alone eaten any bread.
"Happy seventh birthday, Karim."
"Thank you, Am."
I called him Am, but Mohammed wasn't our real uncle, he was Baba's best friend, and we'd been staying with him ever since that fateful day.
"Where's Mosab?" I asked.
"Don't speak with your mouth full, Habibi. Just because it's like a jungle out there, doesn't mean we've all become animals."
As I chewed on the bread I noticed an ant crawling around on the other end of the table. It scurried across, then turned suddenly to the left, its antennae shuffling around from side to side. It stopped, twitched, then made a sharp turn to the right, then forwards, then back again. I examined it closely, trying to count its legs, but its little black body moved too fast for me to focus. I took another bite of the bread and watched as the ant manoeuvred its way around the objects on the table, wondering what could possibly be going through its mind. I must have been there a while, watching it, because the bread had lost its warmth by the time Mosab walked in.
"Do you want some?" I asked.
He didn't reply, but took some anyway and sat opposite me.
"Happy birthday," he said, finally.
"Thanks." I paused. "Can we go play on the swings in Qabbani Street?"
I said 'we,' I meant 'I.' Mosab wasn't into that sort of thing, not any more, but I couldn't leave the house without him.
He chewed on the bread slowly, staring just beyond me before getting up and making his way to the door.
"Come on then," he said, without looking back.
Qabbani Street had been transformed into a sort of makeshift fairground for Eid, during the ceasefire. Eid had passed, as too had the ceasefire, and with it much of the joy, but still the red, rusting swings remained. There were guaranteed to be other children there; it had become my new favourite place.
Mosab was twice my age and always walked fast, unless he was kicking a stone along the road. He wasn't today, however, which meant I had to run every few steps to keep up with him. The fact that it was my birthday would afford me no special privileges.
Just before we arrived I heard screaming from behind. A girl -- no, two girls -- running together. They raced past me.
"I think they're going to the swings," I said.
Mosab looked up at them, then at me, then back down at the floor as he continued to walk.
As we got closer I heard more screams, from more girls, and boys too. I looked up at Mosab, he nodded, and went to sit on the kerb as I ran to join them. The two girls were waiting excitedly for their turn on the swings, the other nine occupants on the large green metallic seat leaving no room for new entrants.
They were holding hands and singing a rhyme I'd not heard before, but which I liked because it was about a magical donkey with big floppy ears that could fly. I liked donkeys. At the second round of singing, I was beginning to learn the words and joined in. The shorter girl, the one who was closer to me smiled and held my hand. It was soft and small but her grip was firm as she rocked my arm, rhythmically and in time with the song, her flowery blue dress lifting up and down with each rapid swing. Her short, brown pigtails waved from side to side, occasionally catching my head.
Flip, Flap, Flop, the ears did not stop. The donkey kept on rising, rising to the top.
Flip, Flap, Flop, the ears did not stop. The donkey kept on rising, rising to the top.
Every repetition of the chorus became louder, and brought faster, higher, more powerful swings of the arms, of her hair, so that I was no longer in control. The arm was mine only insomuch as it was attached to my shoulder, the real controller was my new friend. And I loved it.
Flip, Flap, Flop, the ears did not stop. The donkey kept on rising, rising to the top.
I started to laugh. I laughed so much that I could no longer keep up. Not with the swings, not with the chorus, not with anything.
Flip, Flap, Flop, the ears did not stop. The donkey kept on rising, rising --
The laughing was becoming hysterical now and I was struggling to breathe, struggling to stand even. The girl was also laughing, but showing more discipline.
A deep stuttering, thudding sound crept up in the distance, sapping all joviality within seconds.
"Helicopter!" someone shouted. I looked back and up at the sky but was jolted forwards.
"The shelter!" the girl shouted, pulling on my arm.
"Mosab!" I called out, resisting, unable to see him.
"We have to go."
"I can't -- my brother."
The chopping sound of the propellers became loud very quickly.
The girl tugged on my arm.
"Mosab!" I looked around everywhere. Which kerb had he gone to? What side of the road? Had he even gone to the kerb? Where had he gone? Where was he?
"Mosab!" I screamed at the top of my voice, and even I could barely hear it now. The thrumming was deafening. And then I could see it. The helicopter, as it passed the residential block, eclipsing the sun, erasing our silhouettes. I felt my hand freed, back in my control. I looked at the girl. "I'm sorry," she said, before darting off to the shelter.
A thunderous sound rocked the ground and suddenly, like the donkey, I was flying. Flying, but without control, without joy, and without quite understanding what was going on; all my thoughts frozen in time.
I don't remember hearing the second explosion, but boy, did I feel it. A shuddering that rattled everything inside me. It felt like it lasted forever. Day turned to night, and sound turned to silence, and then ringing. Endless ringing. In the distance I heard voices, but I couldn't tell where they were coming from. Everything was dust, dust and rubble.
I felt someone shake me, tugging on my blue t-shirt.
I looked up at the culprit. A lady, dressed hijab-to-shoes all in black pushed away in disappointment as I turned to her.
"Fatima? FATIMA!" She went off, screaming. Bending her knees and arching her back at the loudest yelps. Her range of movements sudden and opposing, they reminded me of the ant on Mohammed's table -- taking a step to the left, shifting her head, two three steps to the right, then back, then forwards. Arms up, crying out for divine assistance, then bending down completely, touching the floor, as if pleading with Satan himself, anything to find her Fatima.
And then I remembered ...
Suddenly I too was like the ant, like the woman -- lost, scared, mourning a loss I was yet to confirm. One minute my hands resting on my head, the next they were swinging powerlessly by my sides. I heard the sirens, then the voices of the paramedics, and then the White Helmet volunteers moving through the rubble. As dust settled, the aftermath became clear. I had seen it before many times -- blood, bodies, parts of bodies -- but this was the first time I had been there to witness the violence as it unfolded.
"Mosab! Please, where are you? MOSAB!" Snot was running into my mouth, my face a pasty mix of ash and tears. "Please, please! Allah, pleeeeeaasse!"
I fell to my knees and raised my hands up to the sky. Through the thin screen of my eyelids I saw a fluttering sun as desperate souls wandered in front of me. I opened them to see whether any could be my big brother, but the sun was bright and I was feeble, and I collapsed backwards onto something both soft and hard. I moved off and looked -- it was a leg, two legs. I jumped back. The feet were bare and the body was facing downwards. It was a body I had seen before. As I took a step further back I froze. I couldn't speak, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't ... anything.
"Aaarrgh!" I heard someone scream shrilly. But I couldn't move to look. All I could see was the flowery blue dress in front of me, facing down into the ground. The small, soft hand that had held mine only minutes ago, now lying limply beside her body. The bluebells on the fabric had seemed so real to me when I first saw them; now even they looked colourless, wilted, dead.
"Put it down, you have to put it down," I could hear. And then curiosity got the better of me; I looked. The woman in black kissing the face of a child, rubbing off the ash, crying hysterically, a short brown pigtail dangling off the side of her right hand. But there was nothing underneath. Only the head. The head that had smiled at me. The head that had taught me the song about the magical, flying donkey. The head that had controlled the hand that had held me; the hand that had tried to save me.
I felt woozy and disorientated; I thought I might fall back. But arms came down from above, either side of my shoulders, they crossed over my chest and pulled me powerfully into an embrace from behind. It had been years since I'd felt it. The arms were longer, hairier, stronger, the smell from the armpits more odorous now too. But it had never felt better. Mosab kissed the top of my head and I grabbed his hands with mine, dropping my head onto his left arm. I looked at my wrist. My silicone band had lost much of its colour now. The green and black faded, the middle now more beige than white. Even the words FREEDOM SYRIA were beginning to blend into the background. But the star of the revolution, as Baba called the central of the three, looked as bright as the day he had given it to us. Don't take this off until Syria is free, he told us. Mosab hadn't worn his for a long time.
* * *
That day was the last day I played on the streets of my city. The days that followed saw an increase in the number of barrel bombs, and a fall in the number of children playing outside. Although I still heard boys and girls screaming, these were now rarely the screams of joy.
One day, after a week of keeping us indoors and away from the windows, Mohammed came to speak to me and my brother as we both relaxed in the living room -- Mosab lying on the sofa, looking up at the ceiling and I, sat on the floor beside him, colouring in a book that Mohammed had bought for my birthday.
"Boys, I have something I need to tell you," said Mohammed. There was a sadness in his eyes I'd not seen before. I felt worried for him, I didn't like to see him upset.
"Are you OK, Am?"
He nodded and smiled, lines forming on his cheeks like ripples in a lake, each one more faint than the last. He cupped my face and looked in my eyes.
"I've been -- "
He dropped his head.
"Ok ... " he paused, then exhaled. "I'm ... I'm erm ... I'm sending you both to London ... to your uncle ... your uncle, Hamid."
"What?" said Mosab and I, practically in unison. "We don't even know Uncle Hamid!" continued my brother.
"Why?" I pleaded. "I don't want to go to London, I want to stay in Aleppo."
"It's not safe anymore, Habibi. Since the ceasefire ended, they've been shelling the city non-stop. This is no life for a child."
"I don't want to leave!" I cried.
"I don't want you to leave; either of you," he replied.
No sooner had Mosab's bare feet landed beside me, was he out the room and running down the corridor. I heard our bedroom door slam behind him. The hanging Nemo toy that had been dangling off our door handle bounced on the floor. In times gone by it would have emitted a funny quote from the film upon impact.
"Mosab!" yelled Mohammed, unsure which sibling to console.
"Please don't send us away, Am. I like it here with you."
"And I love having you here, Karim, but I can't keep you safe."
"I'll never ask to leave the house again, I promise. I'll stay home forever and ever and ever; just me, you and Mosab. And I won't complain. And I promise I'll stop leaving my plate on the table too after breakfast, and I --"
"Shhh," said Mohammed, interrupting me softly. "I don't mind about all these things, Karim. This isn't a punishment."
"I made a promise to your father before he died. I promised that I'd keep you safe, that I'd keep you alive to see the sun rise on the other side of the revolution. Your father ... he was like a brother to me, Karim, like Mosab is to you. If you made a promise to Mosab, wouldn't you do everything you could to keep that promise?"
I nodded slowly.
"That's why I need to do this, Habibi."
I knew then that he wouldn't be swayed. Mohammed had always been the one Baba turned to, the one who was always there. In joyous times and in challenging times, in times of peace and in times of war. He'd never failed him in life; he wouldn't now fail him in death.
Within a week we were off. Mohammed paid a group of men to get us out of Syria and across Europe. He told us that once we were in Europe, we would be protected by law as refugees. And that by the time we got to France -- the country where Ratatouille was set, is how Mohammed explained it to me -- we'd be only a short boat ride away from England, and London, where we'd be allowed to settle because Hamid was living there; because Hamid was our uncle.
Leaving was difficult. It was the only time I ever saw Mohammed cry. I cried too, even Mosab looked sad. I looked back at the house as we drove off; there was no wind and the horses in the lace curtains of our bedroom were no longer galloping by the window. I later found out that Mohammed had to sell that house to fund our escape. I would never see them gallop again.
The journey to London via Calais took two months. We were the lucky ones, we were told. We didn't feel too lucky when we were crossing the sea by night in a dinghy, when we were being sprayed by police with tear gas, or when we were sleeping in cold, damp and porous tents. The only thing I felt lucky about, and for which I thanked God every day, was my brother.
* * *
London was not how I imagined it. Big Ben and the London Eye, the tall, furry black hats of the Royal Guards, the red telephone boxes, the red double decker buses, the rising bridge over the Thames, the Queen -- these were the things I had expected, the things that Baba had spoken of. However, none of these things were visible from Uncle Hamid's third-floor, one-bedroom flat. In the days since we'd arrived we'd seen nothing in the surrounding area but varying shades of grey -- from the concrete columns, walls and pathways of the Churchill Estate, to the thick, cloudy skies it reflected. Occasionally we'd come across a redbrick wall, the brown skeleton of an autumnal tree, a white road sign, the red top of a bus shelter, but those were the only noticeable colours when walking around the area, save for the occasional passing vehicle. And from the window of the living room, which had become Mosab's and my bedroom, we couldn't even see that; just the corner of another, identical grey concrete edifice. A row of windows adorned with satellite dishes and curtains -- little in the way of colour; nothing in the way of nature. But in some ways I was glad of it. Colours reminded me of things I'd rather forget.
Uncle Hamid wasn't like Mohammed; he didn't smile as much, and he didn't ruffle my hair. He woke us every morning before dawn for Fajr, and took unkindly to any moaning. Trips to the mosque became routine for us on Fridays, trips which frustrated Mosab because they were slow; Uncle Hamid couldn't walk too fast because of his limp. Suited me fine, I only had little legs.
The cleaning was the part I didn't enjoy, but I didn't complain, and I got to watch Pixar movies after Friday prayers, so it wasn't all bad. Plus Baba still visited me most nights too; I still felt him stroking my hair shortly before we were woken. His presence made me feel safe. Mosab found it more difficult. Other than to protest and object, he spoke sparingly, and never about Syria.
One morning at the table, some weeks after our arrival, Uncle Hamid informed us that we would be going to a different mosque, to say thank you to those who had campaigned for us and the other child refugees to be allowed to come over. Mosab sighed.
"What is this aaahh?" said Uncle Hamid, mimicking him.
Mosab didn't speak; he just kept looking down at his fork, which he was running his fingers over as if it were his most prized possession.
"Stupid boy. If it wasn't for these people, you'd still be in the Jungle! Is that what you wanted?"
Still no reply.
Uncle Hamid slammed the table with his hand. "Damn it, you ungrateful bastard! If it wasn't for me you'd still be in Aleppo! If it wasn't for me you'd probably be dead!"
I looked at Mosab, willing him to speak, to say something, but his face was as expressionless as it was most days.
"Put that fucking fork down and look at me!"
I saw Mosab's knuckles go red as he tightened his grip on the utensil.
Let go of the fork, Mosab, I thought. Please ...
He rolled his head up slowly, his hazel eyes locked in a firm gaze across the table. His eyebrows tensed, closer together. They stared at each other for longer than felt comfortable and then, after a while, he let go.
"Get out of my kitch --!"
Mosab dragged the chair back violently, stood up and left the room before the sentence was complete.
Despite the altercation, within the hour we were on a bus, en route to the London Central Mosque, as per my uncle's wishes. It was quite far and we had to get two buses; the second, however, was a double-decker red bus, just like I imagined, with three entrances -- one at the front, one in the middle and another at the back, with a half spiral staircase leading upstairs, which is where we sat.
This part of the journey showed me the London I had seen in pictures. Crossing over the Thames I saw beautiful buildings, old and new, all standing tall -- not a single one in ruins. There was the fancy clock tower of Big Ben, the slow turning wheel of the London Eye, and a tall piercing glass structure called the Shard -- apparently the tallest of them all. I spent the rest of the journey transfixed by the passing city outside, the city that I now called home.
I looked at my uncle's walking stick as we stepped off the bus. It was a rough, worn and wooden stick with a large hook at the top for his hand -- I wondered whether they came in different sizes. I'd be starting school soon and it would be great to show up on my first day with a stick of my own. I'd never seen a seven-year-old with a walking stick, I was sure to be the envy of the class. Mosab seemed less enthusiastic about starting school, I wasn't sure why. Perhaps he'd feel better with a walking stick too.
The route to the mosque took us through Regent's Park, the biggest and most wonderful park I'd ever seen. The air felt lighter here than where Uncle Hamid lived, different, pleasant scents permeated the open space, even as leaves fell and colours dulled. I crunched along on dry, fallen brown and red foliage, my head bobbing up and down as I jumped from cluster to cluster. To our right was a large lake where white swans dipped their hooked heads underwater and multi-coloured ducklings followed their mothers in neat, orderly lines. I saw a man and woman in a pedal boat with two young daughters, probably around my age. They were all pedalling away together, giggling. The dad and one of the daughters held hands as they led the boat under the shadow of a low-hanging, weeping willow tree.
I wanted to ask Uncle Hamid if we could all go together, after mosque, to feed the ducklings and pedal on the boats, but tension billowed above us, like the dark clouds that were forming; this wasn't the right time.
Eventually, after a while, a tall concrete minaret came into view in the horizon and then a shorter, golden-domed mosque, both adorned with their own half crescent moon atop three circular beads. The sun, making a rare appearance out from behind the clouds, was reflecting brightly off the golden panels, revealing a great portion of them to have lost their original sparkle. But nothing took away from the mosque's beauty. It was a much grander place of worship than that which Uncle Hamid usually frequented.
"Look," I said, tugging on the sleeve of Mosab's jacket, attempting to bring its splendour to his attention.
He didn't react. His head was rooted down, probably searching for a stone to kick. I looked down at my wristband and thought of Baba. I wished he were here now. I barely remembered what he looked like anymore. I didn't have any photos and my memories of him became vaguer with each passing day. But at night when he watched over me that didn't seem to matter. I wondered why he only visited me, when it was so clear that Mosab needed him even more.
As we reached the road, the serenity of the park was replaced by the distant, yet familiar sound of protest. I couldn't decipher the chants, but the sentiments were the same as I'd heard dozens of times back in Serbia, Hungary, Calais -- things that required no translation.
Walking up by the side of the mosque to the main road, and the main entrance, I was struck by the number of luminous top-wearing policemen lining the road behind barriers, but even more so by the number of protestors on the opposite side of the road, behind another police cordon and another set of barriers. Men, women, even children, some of whose faces were covered with scarves. At the front stood a man -- a bald, stocky individual with glasses who was leading the chants through a blue-and-white megaphone. Behind him two hooded teenagers, their faces obscured holding a placard I'd seen before and understood, even though it was in English:
REFUGEES NOT WELCOME!
To his left, a woman with long blonde hair held up a large white crucifix, pushing it up high with each repetition of his words. I'd never seen such anger with a cross. My friend Mustafa had a cross in his bedroom back home in Aleppo; he said it always made him calmer when he held it. This woman must not have been holding it properly.
"As-salamu alaykum, Hamid," I heard, as we arrived outside the mosque.
"Wa'alaykumu s-salam, Ahmed. How is your wife?" asked Uncle Hamid, struggling to be heard over the protestors.
"Still in hospital, my brother. It is not looking good. I've not slept properly since she was admitted ..."
Uncle Hamid placed his hand on Ahmed's shoulder.
"She will recover, inshallah; she is a strong woman."
"Inshallah ... These must be your nephews?"
"Yes, this is Mosab," he said, tapping my brother's back with his cane, "and this is Karim," he added, placing his right hand on my head.
"Hello!" I said, edging my lips towards his cheek.
"No, no, no, you are in London now, Karim, we must shake hands like true English gentlemen," he said, laughing, as he extended his right hand. This comment was lost on me, but I followed his lead, as did Mosab, who seemed glad of this bizarre, foreign tradition.
"Come," said Uncle Hamid, looking out into the crowd. "We should probably go in now."
The mosque was as grand within as it was without, nothing more striking than the big bright chandelier, which hung down from the domed roof like an upside-down jellyfish. There was, however, little time to look around. We were clapped in on entry, kissed, hugged, photographed -- I felt like a movie star. Uncle Hamid sure does have a lot of friends, I thought. I'd never received so much attention. There were other Syrian refugees present too, another dozen or so. But for some reason I garnered much of the attention, probably because I was the youngest there, although I was also repeatedly told I was cute -- whatever that meant.
Around an hour or so after our arrival I noticed that Uncle Hamid looked slightly lost as he approached me.
"Where is your brother?" he whispered in my ear.
"I'm not sure, Am. I haven't seen him."
"See if you can find him; discreetly please."
I did as I was told but the search was fruitless and it was only when we ventured back outside, some ten minutes later, that we found him again. He was leaning against the railing, staring out at the protesting horde who were goading him with comments he must not have understood. Uncle Hamid hobbled over as fast as his legs would take him. The wind had picked up and the clouds were beginning to spit.
"Who the hell do you think you are, leaving like that?" said Uncle Hamid.
"Hey," he said, pushing Mosab, "I'm talking to you."
"I don't want to be here."
Again, no response.
Uncle Hamid pushed him again, exciting a reaction from the crowd like a pantomime villain.
"I said -- why not?"
"You're only here to show us off," he said finally. "You don't care about us."
"How dare you!"
"If you cared you'd have helped us years ago, when Baba asked you, when we could all have left ... together."
Uncle Hamid grabbed Mosab by his shirt with his right hand, clenching his fist as he pulled Mosab towards him, until his face was practically touching his.
WAHEY, the crowd cheered in irony.
"Where is your respect, boy?"
The rain was beginning to pour heavily now and Uncle Hamid's glasses were steaming up.
"Get. Off. Me." said Mosab.
Uncle Hamid pushed him back before propelling him forwards again with more force, pounding his chest hard with his fist, then lifting him by his shirt, so that only his tiptoes were on the floor. Again, the crowd cheered. Uncle Hamid's left hand was trembling on the walking stick. The rain was torrential now and people were running down the road to escape the deluge. The people on this side, that is; it would take more than water to disperse the other lot across the road.
"Uncle Hamid," I said, "please ... please stop."
He didn't acknowledge me.
"Get. Off. Me." Mosab repeated.
"Everything all right over there?" said the nearest policeman, who was now walking over. His face was stern.
Uncle Hamid let go of Mosab's shirt, patting down the section just creased by his handiwork.
He smiled at the policeman. "Yes officer, he is my nephew." The policeman stared at my uncle, then at Mosab, then back at my uncle. Suddenly the crowd began to push forwards on the other side of the road. The policeman turned back to face the more pressing threat. The protestors were growing more agitated. The barriers were swaying backwards and forwards and the police were struggling to hold them back. A few officers rushed off from our side of the road to go over and help.
"We'd better get back inside." said Uncle Hamid to Mosab and I. But Mosab wasn't there anymore. We looked both ways and saw that he'd disappeared off down the road to the left. Freed from our uncle's restraints he'd gotten quite far, walking at his usual, fast pace.
"Mosab!" bellowed Uncle Hamid, to no avail. Mosab walked on.
The police were struggling to hold back the crowd, who were now throwing things in our direction. A rectangular pack, containing a red fatty meat, that appeared to be cut into thin strips landed at our feet. Uncle Hamid kicked it away and scowled at the crowd. They seemed energised by his response.
"Let's get your brother," he said, hobbling off to the left, the fastest I'd seen him go. "Go ahead and catch him up, before he gets lost."
And so off I went. Stopping at the road, looking both ways before crossing, just as I'd been taught, then walking a bit faster once I got to the other side.
"Mosab!" I called out, but he was still a fair distance away and didn't turn back. The road curved to the left further up where he was approaching and he was almost out of view; I started jogging. The rain was bouncing off the floor like hundreds and thousands of tiny rubber balls.
"Mosab!" I shouted again, as I got nearer, but still at some distance. This time he heard me; he looked back, squinting, before alien voices flipped his head sharply to the left. Two hooded teenagers, faces covered by black scarves were running over, shouting at him. They'd abandoned their fellow protestors, who were instead now charging at the police. I didn't understand what the boys were saying but they reminded me of the hyenas who chased Simba in the Lion King.
I ran faster.
They looked around Mosab's age, maybe a bit older. One of them was slightly taller, more athletic and faster. He had stonewash jeans and white trainers. The other one, the portlier of the two wore a black tracksuit, with trainers to match. I couldn't see their faces but I recognised them from the crowd. They were the ones holding the placard.
They ran at Mosab head on. I saw him attempt a punch, catching the taller one, who arrived first, awkwardly on the cheekbone, forcing him to the side. Mosab stepped back, defensively, in retreat, ready to run. But then the fat one arrived. He jumped on my brother, who stood his ground, pulling down on his attacker's hood, trying to pry him away, revealing the teenager's short, ginger hair and freckly face. He pushed Mosab away and pulled the hood back over. Mosab turned to run but was caught by a powerful right hook from behind. He stumbled. The fat one side-kicked him in his kidneys. And then he was down. And they were on him.
I couldn't run any faster.
"Mosab!" I screamed. "Help! Police! Help" I shouted in the best English I could muster, looking back.
Punches were flying in. But he was battling them well, they were struggling. I could see that. Soon the police would be here and they would arrest them. Mosab was hurt, but he was strong. He would be OK. They would be in prison, and everything would be OK.
"Heeeelp!" I yelled as loudly as I could, still running. I was nearly upon them and Mosab seemed to almost be free. He'd hit the fat one, pushing him off and had just about wriggled away from the other one.
Mosab tried to stand but the tall one grabbed his leg. He tried to shake him off. He was shaking him hard, so hard that he didn't see the fat one pull out the sharp, shiny object from his pocket. He thrust it into Mosab's side, and when it reversed out, it was no longer shiny, but red. Mosab fell. And then it went in again. And again. And again.
"MOSAB!" I bellowed.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" said the tall one, frantically pulling at the knife-wielder's jacket. But still he managed to drive it in one more time. Mosab was fighting back no more.
"Let's fucking go, man, it's done!"
The perpetrator got up at last, fleetingly I saw his face. His eyes a deep blue surrounded by thick red veins in an ocean of white. A stare that lasted an eternity. Except it didn't. In a split-second he'd darted off behind his accomplice. I charged and collapsed by Mosab's side.
"Mosab, are you OK? Are you OK, Mosab? Are you OK?"
He turned to me. He wore an expression I'd not seen on him before; it scared me. He opened his mouth and tried to speak; no words made their way out.
"HEEEELP!" I cried, looking backwards; police were now racing towards us.
Someone grabbed my hand and squeezed it gently, but it wasn't intended to be gentle. I could tell that Mosab was doing so with all his might.
"The police are coming, Mosab. The police are coming and then the ambulance is going to come too and then everything is going to be like it was before."
Still he looked at me, deeply, with that same expression that I'd not seen before. It was the same expression I had. His mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. He was bleeding extensively.
A tear formed in his left eye. I wiped it with my thumb and dropped my head onto his. I kissed him. His head jolted upwards violently as he coughed. Blood sputtered out; all over him, all over me, everywhere. He rolled onto his side. I squeezed his hand so tightly, I didn't ever want to let go.
"Mosab, please, please, please, please ... please, don't go, Mosab! You can't leave me." I said, my face drenched with blood, tears and rain.
I kissed his hand and prayed, looking up to the sky, the rain was less intense now. I looked down and thought I saw another expression, one I had seen before, but not in a while -- a smile. Yes, yes, it was definitely a smile; he was smiling at me. I smiled back.
His grip on my hand loosened.
"Mosab, Mosab!" I said, tugging on his arm.
"Mosab-Mosab-Mosab-Mosab!" I yelled, with barely a breath in between. Shaking him, pleading for a response. But his body was limp now. And his gaze no longer fixed.
A policeman came and pulled me back off his body, with words I didn't understand, or didn't hear; probably both.
I tottered back, unsteadily, my hands on my head.
A policeman and a policewoman surrounded Mosab's body. The latter placing her ear by his mouth whilst holding his wrist, his flaccid hand drooped down to the side. She looked at my brother, at the pool of blood on the tarmac and then at her colleague. She shook her head.
"Nooooooo!" I screamed.
No, no, no. It couldn't be. Mosab. Dead. No, it wasn't possible. My head felt light like candy floss, I was giddy, faint, dizzy. I thought of all that had come before this. Everything we had been through -- the war, Baba's death, the bombing on Qabbani Street, leaving Mohammed, leaving Syria, the journey across Europe -- the two of us, just the two of us, always just the two of us, just me and Mosab, Mosab and me; and now ... just me.
I felt weak and unsure where to focus my gaze. As I looked down I caught sight of my wristband. It was red, covered in blood like most of my lower arms. The red star of the revolution, the star that reminded me of Baba, camouflaged by the red of my brother's own blood. I looked up and saw Mosab's body, lying there motionless, surrounded by police. The vision stung me. I closed my eyes, wishing away what I'd seen, but the venom of that sight had already taken hold. My limbs faltered and my mind became hazy.
I swooned and lost my balance, I fell back but didn't fall down; two arms swooping down from above, either side of my shoulders, crossing over my chest, catching me from behind, locking me into an embrace. A powerful embrace. An embrace I knew well. I didn't need to open my eyes. I dared not open my eyes. An antidote lay in the darkness.
Article © Ricardo Visinho. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-03-20