I am reposting this story in light of what’s currently happening in my newly adopted country.
I started writing What Milo Saw in December 2012. The troubles in Syria were only beginning, but already then, I felt a deep compassion for the children of Syria: as the civil war split open their country, they lost their homes, their family, their friends, in some cases, their lives. Indeed, the civil war was triggered by protests following the arrest and reported abuse of 15 school children who dared to write anti-government graffiti on a wall. In other words, children lie at the heart of this war.
Hearing and reading about Syria on the news made me want to include a Syrian refugee in my novel as one of the four viewpoint characters. I have a deeply held belief that fiction builds compassion, that by seeing the world through another’s eyes, we become more sensitive to those different from us.
When I began writing Tripi’s character, his backstory came to life: his escape from Syria with his little sister, Ayishah, and how they were separated following a car bomb in Aleppo.
Over the years, as Milo came out in hardback and then a year later in paperback, the Syrian crisis worsened. It reached a personal climax for me this September when I saw the body of a Syrian child washed up on the shore when the boat he and his family were travelling on capsized. I thought of my little girl, roughly the same age as this boy, and my heart broke. I knew I had to do something.
And so, on Saturday, I spent 9 hours writing for Syria.
I sat in the window of Waterstones, Reading, and planned and wrote the story of Ayishah, Tripi’s sister. At the same time, I spoke to customers and I sold copies of Milo, the entire proceeds of which will go straight to Oxfam’s Syria Crisis Appeal in conjunction with Waterstones’s Buy Books For Syria Campaign.
Putting together book sales and my just giving campaign (there’s still time to support), I will have raised over £1,000 for Syrian refugees. A drop in the ocean, perhaps, but one that will help at least one child, find her way to safety.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me so generously.
I hope you enjoy my story.
Always the Moon
Ayishah blinks open her eyes. A sharp pain tears across her forehead. She tries to lift her arm but it’s pinned to her chest. When she takes a breath, the air gets trapped in her ribs. Everything hurts.
She closes her eyes again.
‘We should take her to the hospital, Jidu…’
A soft voice close to her ear. She wills her eyes to open again and sees a little boy, leaning over her.
‘It is too dangerous, Elias. We can look after her here.’
Ayishah tries to shift her head to the side to see who the other speaker is, but her head won’t move.
From where she is lying, she can see through a high window. A fingernail of moon sits in the sky, so small it may as well not be there at all. Only the moon is always there, that’s what Tripi says. When Ayishah misses Ummu and Abbi, Tripi says:
Look at the sky, Ayishah. Ummu and Abbun are looking at the same moon.
‘Tripi…’ She murmurs. ‘Tripi?’
He doesn’t answer.
For a while, Aysihah drifts in and out of sleep. She is aware of the voices above her. And outside the window cars. Heavy tyres. And there’s music too – a flute, right by her ear where she heard the little boy’s voice. The music makes her body feel like it’s floating in the night sky, weaving between the stars and that tiny moon.
How long before we see The Queen, Tripi…? Ayishah’s voice echoes in her head.
In 4,013km, Tripi says, laughter in his voice. He is always so precise, like with the recipes he made at The Four Seasons in Damascus.
The sharp pain across Ayishah’s forehead has changed to a burn. She tries to move her other arm, the one that isn’t pinned to her chest. It lifts. She brushes her fingers across the bit of skin that burns most.
Someone pulls her hand away.
‘You shouldn’t touch that,’ the older voice says. ‘It needs to heal.’
She opens her eyes and looks into the face of an old man.
‘Am I in England?’ Ayishah asks.
The flute stops playing.
‘Why does she think she is in England?’ the boy asks.
A warm breeze sweeps across Ayishah’s her bare arms. England is cold and rainy, her English teacher had taught her.
In the distance, a gunshot rips through the night sky. And then a low rumble. Ayishah’s chest tightens.
She forces her body up, twisting the arm that’s pinned to her chest. Her breath catches in her throat. She coughs. But she pushes on. At least her legs feel okay, and she can use her good arm to lever herself up.
‘Steady there…,’ the old man says.
He puts his hands on her shoulders and presses her down gently.
She fights against him.
‘Where’s my brother?’ Ayishah asks.
It comes back to her. The truck. The glass from the windscreen shattering into a thousand little pieces, flying through the air and then dropping around them like rain. And the smoke. So much smoke.
She coughs again. She feels like she’s drowning.
‘It is okay,’ the boy says.
She looks at him. He is a few years younger than her, eight or maybe nine. He puts down his flute and slips his small hand into hers.
‘We will find your brother,’ he says.
Find him? That means he’s lost. Lost like her parents. Ayishah’s eyes burn.
‘You are not well enough to stand up,’ the boy says, guiding her hand back to the mattress. ‘You have to lie down and rest.’
But Ayishah does not want to lie down. Or to rest. She wants to stand. She wants to shout his name. She wants to run out of this house and onto the streets and to keep running until she finds him. But she has used up all her strength by trying to stand. Her legs buckle. Red and white dots flash behind her eyelids. She falls onto the mattress. And then everything goes black.
‘This is where we found you,’ Elias says, pointing at a patch of pot-holed tarmac. ‘We were walking home from the market and we heard the explosion.’
Ayishah stands propped up between Elias and his grandfather, Jidu. It is her first trip outside the walls of their small white house. The explosion took place on the 1st of July. It is now the 5th of August. One month and five days without Tripi. Before the explosion, they had never been apart, even for one night.
Ayishah looks down at the pavement. And then she closes her eyes and remembers Tripi’s words on that hot day in July:
I think the men are right, Ayishah. Stopping in Aleppo is dangerous. We need to focus on getting to Turkey.
The men and women travelling in the back of the Toyota truck with Ayishah and Tripi had got angry when their driver announced that they were taking a detour via Aleppo. The driver said that he had to collect more people. Ayishah was the one who persuaded Tripi not to join the complaints. That collecting more people was a good thing – that the people of Aleppo deserved to find safety as much as she and Tripi did. And, who knew, maybe some of them would make the journey to England with them: to Turkey and then into Greece, Italy, France and finally across the channel to Buckingham Palace. Perhaps, by September, they would all be having tea with The Queen.
I’m sorry, Tripi, Ayishah whispers to herself. It is all my fault.
‘When was the last time you saw your brother?’ Jidu asks.
Ayishah opens her eyes.
‘It was just before the explosion. The truck that was meant to take us to the Turkish border had a flat tyre. The driver didn’t have a spare one so he went off to get help. The people travelling with us were debating what to do, whether they should wait or keep going on foot. They were nervous about waiting for so long in Aleppo. And then the driver came back…’ Ayishah points to the top of the road. ‘I saw him walking towards us. We were so relieved.’ She pauses. ‘And then the explosion.’
The sky splintered. Dust in her eyes and mouth and lungs. Tripi holding out his hand to her. Ayishah reaching back out to him.
And then another explosion. A piece of metal in her periphery vision. And after that darkness, the same darkness Ayishah has floated in and out of for a month now.
‘We came back here every day,’ Elias says. ‘We asked everyone we met about whether they’d seen the explosion, about what had had happened to the other people.’
Blood rushes through Ayishah’s ears.
‘And?’ she asks.
Jidu shakes his head. ‘We did not find any answers. People are afraid to talk.’
Ayishah looks up and down the street. She doesn’t understand. Tripi would never have left her behind. He would have come back for her.
Just as they are about to walk back to the house, Ayishah notices a Toyota pick-up like the one she and Tripi were travelling in. It is grey rather than white, but otherwise it’s the same. The back is open and filled with people: mothers and fathers and children. A young man parks the truck at the crossroads, gets out and opens the back of the truck for a man and his little boy to climb up.
The call to prayer sings through the sky.
‘We had better get home,’ Jidu says. ‘You must rest.’
Ayishah nods. She will rest. But only until she is well enough. Once she is strong again, she will get onto her feet and look for Tripi.
A fist pounds on the front door of Jidu and Elias’s house. The walls shake.
Ayishah looks at the dark shadows on the walls. She hears Jidu’s rattley snoring. Why is someone knocking on the door in the middle of the night?
‘Elias! Open the door!’
A gun shot.
Ayishah sits up. Elias jumps out of his bed and runs towards her.
‘Quick – you need to hide.’
Jidu plods heavily across the tiles.
‘Why do I need to hide?’
‘Elias?’ The voice, louder this time, pushes through the front door.
‘It’s my Abbi,’ Elias says, pulling Ayishah off the mattress. ‘Hide here.’ He takes her arm and pulls her to the back of the sofa.
‘Ow!’ Ayishah rubs her arm. Jidu took Ayishah’s sling off a week ago but her arm still aches. ‘I don’t understand what’s happening.’
‘He won’t like you being here.’ Elias’s hands are shaking as he points to the sofa.
The door flies open.
Ayishah ducks behind the sofa. She is lucky that she is so small. She remembers playing hide and seek in the underground corridors of The Four Seasons where Tripi worked as a chef. It sometimes took him ages to find her hiding in a broom cupboard or a wardrobe or behind a washing machine. But she never won the game: he always found her. This time, she’s the one who will find Tripi.
‘Is Elias studying the Qur’an every day?’ The man roars at Jidu.
‘Of course,’ Jidu says.
Ayishah knows that this is not true. Although Elias and Jidu pray every day on their prayer mats, facing Mecca, like Tripi used to, she has only seen them open the Qur’an two or three times since she’s been with them.
‘And he goes to mosque?’ The man asks.
‘Yes,’ Jidu says.
Another lie. Going to mosque is too dangerous.
Ayishah scoots down and looks under the gap of the sofa. Heavy, black boots. Khaki trousers. She scoots to the side of the sofa and looks up. A gun slung across his chest. A black and white headband. The same uniform as the soldiers in Damascus that Tripi told Ayishah to stay away from.
There’s no light in his eyes. His mouth is hard. And that’s when it clicks. The photo on the kitchen cabinet: a young man Tripi’s age, a big, warm smile, his arm hung over the shoulder of a young woman holding a baby – Elias’s Abbi. How can this be the same man?
‘Here.’ The man thrusts a pile of bank notes at Jidu. Then he turns to Elias:
‘Soon you will be old enough to join the fight.’ He slaps Elias’s back.
Ayishah feels the dull thud in her body.
And then he’s gone.
For a moment, Elias and Jidu stand in the middle of the lounge, not moving. Ayishah comes out from behind the sofa.
‘Is your father in the army?’ she asks.
Elias nods but he doesn’t look up.
‘Who is he fighting against?’
‘The people who killed Mama. He is in the Free Syrian Army.’
The stabbing pain in Ayishah’s ribs comes back. She can’t breathe.
The gunshots and the explosions, they came from men like Elias’s Abbi. The same explosion that separated her from Tripi.
Every day, once Jidu and Elias have left for the market where Jidu has a fruit stall, Ayishah sweeps the floor, does the dishes and prepares supper. It is the least she can do for Jidu and Elias. They have treated her life family. They saved her life.
She learnt a few recipes from Tripi when he worked at The Four Seasons in Damascus. She likes to make sweets best of all and, for special occasions, when Jidu manages to trade some of his fruits for pistachios and flour and sugar, she makes Tripi’s speciality: Baklava.
Once she has done her chores, Ayishah sneaks out of the house.
You must never, under any circumstances, walk through the front door without us, Jidu had warned her, more than once. It is dangerous for a young girl to walk the streets of Aleppo alone. He knows her character, that is a wanderer.
But Ayishah can’t help going back to the street where the explosion took place. She knows it has been nearly two months now, but she can’t help thinking that maybe Tripi will come back, or that she will find a clue that will lead her to him.
There’s another reason she comes back. Every Friday, at the same time, the man with the grey Toyota truck pulls up at the crossroads and picks up one or two passengers. Sometimes, he waits for an hour or two. Ayishah is convinced that he is taking people to the Turkish border.
Today, she plucks up the courage to walk up to the truck. She knocks on the window next to the driver.
He stares at her and makes a shooing motion with his hands.
She knocks again.
He winds down the window. ‘I don’t have anything for you.’
Her cheeks burn. He thinks she’s a beggar.
‘Are you going to Turkey?’ She asks him.
The man leaps out of the truck. He looks strangely familiar. A moustache, thick eyebrows, a shallow forehead.
‘You cannot be here,’ the man says, his eyes darting up and down the street.
The usual gunshots stutter through the sky.
‘I want you to take me,’ Ayishah says.
The man shakes his head. ‘I do not take children. Especially children without parents.’
‘My parents are in Turkey,’ Ayishah says. Which is not a lie. He doesn’t need to know that she hasn’t seen her Ummi and her Abbi for years.
‘Do you have money?’ The man asks. ‘And papers?’
Ayishah shakes her head.
The gives her a cold laugh, spits on the pavement and slumps back into the driver’s seat of his truck.
‘I came to Aleppo from Damascus with my brother. We were being taken to Turkey. My brother paid money for the journey. He had papers.’ Ayishah’s words tumble over each other.
The man turns his head back to Ayishah.
‘On the first of July.’
The man’s brow furrows. ‘You were in the explosion?’
Ayishah’s heart flutters like the small sparrows in the market place in Damascus.
‘Yes, I was – and so was my brother.’
The man is quiet for a long time. He stares out of the windscreen. Ayishah follows his gaze. The moon is nearly full, just a tiny slither missing.
‘My brother was the driver,’ he says. ‘He was shot on his way back to the truck.
Ayishah remembers seeing the driver walking towards them a few moments before the explosion. She hangs her head. No wonder he is so nervous. She knows that she should be more sensitive, that asking him questions is not kind, that it will make him think more about having lost his brother, but she has to know.
She lifts her head. ‘Do you know anything else about the explosion?’
‘Three deaths were reported.’
The bird that fluttered in Ayishah’s chest just a moment ago, goes still.
‘Do you know who they were?’
‘My brother. A little boy. And a man.’
Ayishah gulps hard.
He shrugs. ‘I don’t know.’ He grips the door handle. ‘Look, I’ve got to go.’
Ayishah touches his arm.
‘Will you take me with you,’ she asks again.
The man locks eyes with her. For a few moments, he doesn’t say anything. And then, very slowly, he nods.
Ayishah lies in bed, looking through the open window of the small room that has been her home for two months now. She has got used to the rhythms of this life. And she has grown to love eight-year-old Elias and his grandfather. It would be easy to stay here. To try and forget the explosion. To try and forget that she was meant to be in England now, having tea with The Queen. Only she can never forget Tripi.
Every night, she is woken by the same dream: he is holding out his hand and, when she tries to grip his fingers, they turn to dust.
No, she made herself a promise and she will keep to it: once her ribs had healed and once her arm was strong again, she would go and look for Tripi. She still sometimes gets headaches, like machine gun fire drilling through her head, which, on bad days, forces her to lie down on her mattress for hours at a time. But those will go too. When she has found Tripi, everything will be better.
She waits for Elias and Jidu to be asleep. Then she grabs the small backpack Jidu uses to carry home the soft fruits left over from his stall.
I’m sorry, she whispers into the room. I’m sorry for taking the bag. She gulps down the stone in her throat. And I’m sorry for not saying goodbye.
She made the promise that she would find Tripi; now she makes another promise too: that one day she will come back here with Tripi, that they will find Elias and Jidu and Tripi will make them the best meal of their lives.
Ayishah eases open the front door and walks out into the quiet street. No gunshots tonight. No expositions. Just the sound of the wind in the pine trees and the slap, slap, slapping of her sandals against the pavement.
‘Ayishah!’ A hiss from behind her.
She spins round. Elias stands under the orange street lamp in his pyjamas.
‘What are you doing out here?’ She asks.
‘I knew you were leaving.’ He stares at her, his brown eyes wide. ‘I have seen you talking to the man with the truck.’
She knows that Jidu’s fruit stand is only a few streets away from the road where the explosion took place, but she was certain that Jidu and Elias had never seen her leaving the house.
‘Can I come with you?’ He asks.
She goes up to him and hugs him and holds him so tight she can feel his heart beating against her chest. Elias is like her: he does not accept to be left behind.
‘Your Jidu needs you. So does your Abbi.’
‘I do not love Abbun. Not anymore.’
‘You must keep believing in him,’ Ayishah says. ‘One day he will come back to you.’
That is what Tripi taught Ayishah. That the best weapon against people who do bad things is love.
‘Will we see you again?’ Elias whispers into her ear.
‘Yes. Yes, I promise.’
Elias steps back. ‘I have a gift for you.’ He pulls something out from behind his back. His flute.
‘If you play it, every day, maybe one day, when we are close, I will hear it and we will find each other again.’
‘But you love your flute.’
‘Jidu will help me save for another one.’ He pushes the flute to Ayishah’s chest. ‘Take it.’
Ayishah’s eyes sting and she is worried that she is going to lose her nerve about leaving. She takes the flute and then kisses Elias’s cheek. She tastes salty tears under lips.
He kisses her back. ‘Goodbye, Ayishah.’
Ayishah watches Elias walk down the street to the house. She waits until he is safely back inside and then she turns to go.
An hour later, Ayishah is sitting in the back of the grey Toyota pick-up. Beside her, a mother is nursing her baby. A young man is smoking a cigarette. An old woman in a headscarf is mumbling a prayer.
Ayishah feels every bump in the road. Her head hurts. But she is happy: she is on the road she set out on with Tripi two months ago.
As the truck pulls out of Aleppo, Ayishah looks up at the dark sky and at the thousand pinprick stars. She takes out Elias’s flute and puts it to her lips. The music floats on the night air.
Please help me find Tripi, she thinks as she plays to the full moon.
Written on Saturday 5th of June, Waterstones, Syria