By Claudie Muchindu
The moonlight crept into the large warm room, landing on a bare foot that had escaped from a vibrant red and brown quilt. The foot belonged to Noora Kim, she was sprawled across a couch that was not designed to be slept in but was not necessarily uncomfortable.
She had fallen asleep trying to read a copy of an 18th century Portuguese poem written by a traveller to ancient China which now lay on the floor. Her plan was to translate it and then make her way to bed but she soon found that it made no sense to her. The notes on this copy of the poem had Arabic notes and she only had a basic level of spoken Arabic and had more of an inability to read it than anything else. The document was useless to her and for quite a few of minutes she wished her mother had been more forceful in getting her to learn the language. Her mother had tried to get her to be literate in it and Korean but Noora believed that European languages were her path to a future with opportunities and her predication had been right. Noora had become an expert translator of English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Spanish and German but she shunned anything Asian. Noora had no interest for Asia and the Middle East.
Noora woke with a start, she couldn’t tell what had woken her up but she was wide awake. She lay back for a few minutes waiting for a sound to come to her and when nothing came she swung her feet onto the cool wooden floor. She walked over to the large window and looked down on the quiet street from an 8th story view. The streets had been asleep for a while and the only traffic that she could make out was pollen. Flowers were in bloom and the scents wafting into her open window in a glorious medley. She shut the window and drew the curtains closed.
Her apartment was silent and dark and she turned on the lights in the living room, checked her front door. She hadn’t locked it but she bolted it then and went into the kitchen and closed her windows there. There were no curtains to draw though. She put a container that had some leftover lasagne into the microwave to heat up while she closed windows and drew curtains in the 2 bedrooms upstairs. There was no need to close the bathroom windows because she didn’t usually open them. She returned downstairs as the microwave gave off a reminder beep that it had finished its cycle and she took the lasagne out and made her way to the more comfortable couch in the living room, putting her feet beneath her she turned on the TV. She settled on a re-run of an Italian cooking show and ate her lasagne with an Italian chef keeping her company. The phone rang mid way through her meal and she glanced at the clock by the door as she reached over to pick up the receiver.
“Its 10 o’clock mum” she said into it as she put it by her ear. “You are awake aren’t you?” her mother said with a heavy Korean accent and Noora smiled to herself.
“I could have been busy” she replied.
“You never busy. You maybe eating some silly food now, aren’t you?” her mother accused and Noora put the container of lasagne on the side table and lay back on the sofa.
“Maybe.” She said,
“Maybe, uh?” her mother asked, “Maybe you eat proper food once in a while” she went on to add without waiting for a reply.
“I make some homemade dumplings and sweet bread for you, you coming to the meeting tomorrow?” she asked.
“What time will Dad be there?” Noora asked lowering the volume on the TV before her mother made some comment about it.
“You can call him and ask if you want,” her mother said briskly and Noora rolled her eyes,
“Ma, its his mother that’s just died” she said softly.
“And mine has been dead for longer, he didn’t come to see me then but I better than him. I go and say my goodbyes…” she paused as if shuffling around, “after all, you should not be angry with the dead.” She finally added.
Noora nodded “Should I pick you up?’ she asked
“No, too much trouble. I think drive will be good for me. You remember directions to the house?” she could imagine her mother putting together the final touches to the basket that would feed everyone although chances are there’d be enough food without her having to bring any extra.
“Yes Ma, I remember the house. I’ve spent a lot of time at Gran’s, remember?” Noora was referring to the numerous holidays she spent at Petals Estate when her mother would give her over to her grandparents to bond with.
“That was long time ago,” her mother said with a whisper of sadness in her voice.
“OK, I tired now.” she said abruptly as if Noora had made the call and Noora smiled to herself.
“See you tomorrow Mum” Noora said
“Yeah, don’t sleep late. Also drink some water. Probably lots of oil in that food.” her mother added and Noora glanced at the container and surely enough a sufficient amount of oil has coagulated in some places in the short time she had put it down.
“Not that much” she said guiltily and her mother chuckled.
“12 o clock?” her mother asked,
“12 o’clock.” she agreed,
“Tomorrow.” she said softly,
“Tomorrow.” Noora said and hung up.
Her mother believed goodbyes were for the dead.
Finally feeling tired she picked up the container of lasagne, finished it quickly, turned off the TV, put the empty container in the sink, gulped down a glass full of water and walked upstairs.
She was still wearing the shift dress she had worn to work in the morning and it had wrinkled considerably due to her nap in the study and she glanced at her reflection in the mirror as she took it off. Her hair was dyed a strawberry blonde and the braid that had started the day a little too tight was a glorious mess on her head and her underwear was definitely not a matching pair. She’d have to make sure she wore a matching pair tomorrow. Her mother hated mis-matching underwear. Unclipping her bra she climbed into bed and fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. Noora never had trouble sleeping.
Noora woke up at 6AM in went for her half hour cycle as usual, she compensated for her oily food by regular exercise and her body rewarded her by not punishing her too much. On Saturdays there were more cyclists than usual and she smiled to a few that she knew but mostly she rode with her eyes on the road in front of her, she stepped into the shower and had a warm long and lazy bathe. She decided to wear a brown and blue dress her mother had made for her that she never wore. It fit her very well and had the slim bodice and poodle skirt she loved. Having a designer mother had its distinct advantages. Finding a matching pair of underwear proved a little more difficult for her though but eventually she did. The bra had been worn on Tuesday but her mother wouldn’t know that. It was practically clean and the underwear was ‘decent’ in her books.
She made her bed up, decided against opening her windows because she wasn’t sure how long she’d be at her Gran’s place. She trotted downstairs and washed the container that she had left the night before and put some music on while she made her cereal breakfast and sat down in the living room with a fashion magazine she had bought the day before and hadn’t read, she usually read magazines with a purple pen in hand to put her notes and ideas as she read. She wasn’t one for passively taking in information.
By the time she was done it was almost time to leave, her Grandparents lived two towns away and it was a three hour drive so she went into the study, picked the handbag she had taken to work the day before, decided it didn’t match her dress and transferred her purse into a larger blue bag that had similar detail to the hem of the dress she was wearing. She briefly looked through some translations that she’d have to get through next week, picked up the translation that had fallen to the floor the previous night and made a note on her desk to pick up a few sheets for her Comparative European class before Wednesday and almost left the house bare foot before going back into house to pick a pair of pumps by the door and remembered to lock it before walking down the stairs to the parking bay of her building.
It was a few minutes after 12 when she pulled up to The Petals Estate. Her paternal grandparents owned a large farm estate that exported flowers all over the world. She remembered her grandmother claiming the judge of a woman was how she grew a garden because children have minds of their own and aren’t copies but a flower was the sole product of your efforts. She parked and noticed that her mother hadn’t arrived yet. She hoped she hadn’t met any trouble on her way. The large door stood open and she walked in to find her Grandfather sitting in silence staring at a large portrait of him and his wife.
“Baba?” Noora said kneeling down beside him,
He kissed the top of her head and reached for her hand.
“I was supposed to go first.” he said to no one in particular, Noora squeezed his hand and stared at her grandfather who looked like he had aged in the last 2 weeks since his wife’s death.
“She used to say that the first thing she would do when I died was replace that painting.” he said with a smile on his face.
“She did hate the way the painter made her smile look,” Noora said remembering all the times her grandmother would complain about the portrait that hung in the living room.
“I love that smile,” her grandfather mused, again, apparently to no one in particular.
“I fell in love with it.” he said to Noora with a smile on his face.
“She used to smile like that when she had an ‘inappropriate’ thought, well, thats what her mother called them” he said with a chuckle.
“She had a spirit that no one could pin down or hide and this painting is the closest I’ve ever come to replicating it.” he said and Noora felt his hand shake a little within hers.
“She was supposed to leave after me.” he said in a whisper and Noora was stunned into silence. She didn’t know what to say to her grandfather. Her grandmother always overpowered him but there was no doubt that his wife was as devoted to him as he was to her. She just had a louder voice.
“I hope everyone hungry” Noora’s mother had walked in and stood in the doorway with a large basket.
“I not smell food and that very bad Uncle” she said shaking her head as she walked into the living room.
He smiled and tried to say something but Noora’s mother shushed him and he sat back with a grateful look on his face.
“Auntie would be very upset with you” she continued to chastise him with mock anger and Noora walked over to her mother and helped her empty the contents onto the bar counter.
“You know, she no like it when you don’t eat” she added and he nodded with a smile on his face
“The judge of a man is by the width of his belt” he chuckled to himself and Noora thought briefly that her Dad had a very narrow belt.
“Noora, go get 3 plates” her mother commanded her when everything was displayed and uncovered.
“4.” another voice said from the door.
They all watched Noora’s father close the door behind him and there was silence for almost 5 full seconds before Noora stood up and gave him a hug.
“Play nice,” she whispered as she squeezed her father in greeting
“I can play as un-nice as I want to, I’m grieving.” he said through gritted teeth
“That doesn’t mean you have to be mean today” she replied with a large fake smile on her face and thought briefly that he never needed a reason to be mean she groaned inwardly. It was going to be a long day.
Her mother plated up while her grandfather went to wash up.
“Did you have a good drive?” Noora asked her parents
“No, its so far all the way up here and all the pollen made my nose act up.” her father complained
“Lovely drive,” her mother said, “You know, they put a new coffee shop with different teas at the bottom of the hill” her mother said cheerfully.
“A tea shop then?” her father said with a smirk on his face
“No, a coffee shop that also sells tea” her mother said glaring at him
“I haven’t heard of those. Maybe they have them back in Korea but over here a coffee shop sells coffe and a tea shop, tea.” He said with finality
“Did you see it?” she asked Noora with audible strain in her voice.
“No, I missed it” she said staring at her father, disappointed in his insistence on being sour.
“We should go sometime” her mother said as Noora’s grandfather walked back in with a small box that looked like it had been forgotten in a dark corner for at least a decade.
“This is for you” he said giving the box to Noora’s mother and everyone was silent for a moment.
“she hid it well but she did feel guilty about the way she treated you,” he said taking her hand
“but you know how her pride, she made herself a Queen in her mind” her said with a wistful smile
“What is it?” Noora asked staring at her grandfather.
“A wedding gift” he said
“A wedding gift?” her mother asked startled “Why a wedding gift? She didn’t even come to my wedding.” she said in a slightly angry voice.
”Even when she is gone she still wants to belittle me,” her mother whispered, a slight panic in her voice, “like I can ever find another husband.” He shook his head at Noora’s mother. “It was for a wedding that already passed, not one that about to happen” he said quietly pulling her to sit down next to him and her mother had a puzzled look on her face.
“This was for our wedding?” she asked looking at Noora’s father and he shrugged, apparently he didn’t know about it.
“After all, she could only be your mother in law through him” he said nodding briefly to his son
“Her heart was very proud. Sometimes I believe the only reason she actually gave me the time of day in the beginning was because I had a little bit of noble blood, even though it is not that much” he laughed “After all, how noble can I be being almost the 200th person in line to ascend to a throne no one even remembers?” he asked trying to lighten up the room and Noora was the only person that laughed a little at that. She loved imagining what like would have been if there hadn’t been a coup in Iran and her father’s family could have continued to live there in wealth and majesty that made this estate look like a pale paupers hovel. But she’d never know what that kind of life would be life, she had never even been to her father’s homeland…neither had he even.
“At the end she began to regret interfering with the two of you,” he looked at his son
“She smothered you beyond measure and when you rejected her choice for a bride, she felt you rejected her.” he lowered his head.
“She did reject me” his son said “She cut me off and said if I didn’t ‘fix my mistake’ I wouldn’t get a thing” he added, his voice laced with venom.
“I should not have let her coddle you so much” Noora’s grandfather said thoughtfully his head still lowered
“You put your mother’s wealth before your wife’s love” he said sounding as though he was struggling to stop himself from getting frustrated and raised his head to look at his son. Noora did not recognise the look on her grandfather’s face, it was a look of defiance he never would have had for his wife.
“You could have made your own money instead of getting only what your mother left behind.” he looked at his son, “She could never have cut you off, even if you became gay.” He added as an afterthought and turned his attention back to Noora’s mother.
Noora’s father cleared his thought uncomfortably and stared at his mother’s picture on the wall.
“She put that together when Noora was 3. She would have given that to you then but his mind had already been poisoned too far and she thought you would read it the wrong way” he said softly.
“I would have” her mother said looking at the box with an envelope taped to the top.
“When you feel pregnant and she knew it was a girl, her heart began to change. It almost killed her when you gave Noora your surname and not ours but she did not blame you. She blamed herself.” He squeezed her hand and gazed into her eyes and Noora saw a shimmer in his eyes. “She saw you in a new light when you gave her her mother’s name though.” he said smiling at Noora
“She could have said something” Noora’s mother said with a slight whimper.
He laughed “How could our Queen tell you that you were becoming a better mother than she ever was.” there was no bitterness in his voice. “You know, it was her request that Noora holiday here, not mine” he sat back in the chair, still holding Noora’s hand.
“She tried to give you the mother you never had at the end. I know it could not have been easy for you being brought up moving from home to home without any roots. Never feeling like you belong and when you finally have a chance to earth some proper roots to have someone come in and interfere in that” Noora’s mother was sobbing now and Noora’s grandfather put an arm around her shoulders.
“She grew up like that in the beginning too, that’s what made her heart a little heard to you. You were her when she was younger and she wanted a woman for her son that was like the woman she had become, not as she started.” He paused, staring at the portrait again.
“Yes, she had many regrets with you” he said with a sigh “A chance to have a dutiful daughter that she could never have or be but she didn’t know how to fix it.”
“The envelope on top is your family history and why your parents gave you up.” her mother choked and Noora patted her back.
“In her death maybe she can give you both the history and a future she never could when she was alive. Maybe you can set some roots now.”
“She never told me about that” Noora’s father said abruptly
A flare of anger fleeted through Noora’s heart, this wasn’t about her father but he insisted on making it about him.
“She could not, she was ashamed” her grandfather replied without any expression.
“What did she have to be ashamed about?” he said in a huff
“Being wrong.” He said curtly.
“Maryam was not a good match. You threw away the best wife you could have and to appease your mother…no, to inherit from your mother you married a woman ill matched but of ‘good standing’. In her old age she realised good standing doesn’t come from the blood, she could not find peace with the fact that you crumbled so easily. You walked away without a thought when she threatened cutting you off.” His voice was strong and had an authority Noora had never heard before she gazed at her grandfather. Never had she heard him talk so much or in this way before. She could not think of what to say.
“She was ashamed of raising a son too weak to be the kind of man she wanted him to be.” he added before turning to Noora’s mother again.
“I gave up everything to move down here with her. She knew I had nothing when we found this beautiful patch of land to work on. She had nothing.” he said with a longing nature to his voice.
“She said she could live as a pauper if she had children with royal blood.” he laughed.
“It was hard for us, foreigners in a new land.” he was staring at the portrait of his wife again.
“She forgot that those hard times made us stronger than anything else could have” he looked at his son.
Noora stared at the portrait again; from the looks of things, her grandmother had gone through her life constantly with an ‘inappropriate’ thought running through her head.
This would be a long day for sure.
This is the raw version of one of the stories I am editing for my collection of short stories.
Yesterday I read this article, “Story First, Writing Second” and I finally GOT IT. Often my process is get vivid imagery of something I want to write about and figure out what that image is as I go along, which is great but eventually means I hit a brick wall and cant move my story forward so I stare, go backwards, chop a lot, add in more and hit another brick wall. Now I need to structure myself more and figure out what I want my image to say before just running along with imagery which works great if I could actually draw, not so much when I have to use words.
Over and Out!