The small flat had only one bedroom, even though it housed three occupants, and ever since they had moved in Sabina’s father had slept on a rusty fold out bed placed in a corner of the living room. It remained there constantly, becoming like a standard fixture of the décor, and was only packed away when guests were due to visit. Without being told, Sabina knew when Aunties and Uncles would be arriving for dinner as she’d hear her father cursing under his breath, bent over the iron frame, willing it into the right position so it would fold in half and slide back into its original packaging. Her mother would take the floral china out from a box that sat on top of the freezer and wipe them down, cradling each plate carefully in her slight arms.
Sabina wondered why her parents never slept next to each other like the mothers and fathers she saw on tv, like she was sure her school friend’s parents did. Instead she watched as they passed each other swiftly and silently in the living room and kitchen, like commuters walking to catch different trains, or strangers searching for products in a supermarket aisle.
The only time a collective joy truly seemed to spread throughout their home was in the weeks and days leading up to Sabina’s birthday. Her mother would always bake a special cake, modelling it on what Sabina’s interests were that year. One year there had been a doll shaped cake with a skirt fashioned from icing, and the year Sabina had won first prize on her school project about Gibbons, the top of the cake had a zoo theme- with a lopsided brown monkey the cheeky centrepiece. The process would usually begin days earlier with her mother waiting until Sabina had left for school in the morning with her father. As the small red Datsun would reverse out of the apartment complex, only then would Sabina’s mother pull out the fondant and various utensils.
Now, the day before Sabina’s ninth birthday, the kitchen still seemed full of things that did not matter. Checking after school, Sabina hurriedly inspected the cupboards and fridge, shifting around boxes of cereal, brown onions and containers of left over chicken curry, noting that there were still no eggs. The absence of eggs was an indicator that her mother hadn’t yet started the cake making process, which led her to believe that perhaps this year she would be on the receiving end of a store-bought cake.
The prospect of an outside cake entering their flat was thrilling. Her mother and father didn’t celebrate their own birthdays, so the having an entire birthday cake purchased would be a first. That night Sabina found it difficult to sleep, and as the room grew darker her eyes became larger still, brimming with excitement and curiosity. The midsummer heat had settled in, and her mother insisted on turning the rickety celling fan up to the highest possible setting. As it gathered speed, an incessant whirring sound filled the room, and at the peak of its power, the blades oscillated with such intensity that Sabina was sure the entire structure would rip from the ceiling and slice through the air, decapitating them.
‘Can we turn it down pleeeease?’
‘Don’t be silly Sab,’ her mother placed a clammy hand gently on her forehead ‘You know I can’t stand this heat.’
Having moved from Pakistan to Australia around a decade earlier, her mother had never really learnt to love the Australian summer. ‘It got really hot there too Sab, but this heat is different, there is something about it.’
A few days after her parents had freshly arrived, her mother’s hands still housing the remnants of bridal mehndi, there had been a heatwave. Traditionally new brides were to wear ornate shalwar kameez in the days after marriage, but as her mother found herself alone in the flat during the day, she would strip down to her undergarments and lay down, sweat patches marking crisp bedsheets. Venturing out of the flat one morning, she had decided to cut her hair. Sabina would beg her mother to tell the story over, and over again, thrilled at how brazen she must have been to wander through a foreign town, in search of a hairdresser. How brave it was to cut stylish hair that fell in sweeping black waves all the way down to her hips.
‘I waited until your father left for the office, then I caught the bus into town. I caught the wrong bus first, so it took me a while. There was only one local hairdresser at that time, and I was embarrassed because my English was so bad.’
Sabina always giggled into her palm when her mother mimicked the hand signals she had used to indicate how short she wanted her hair cut. It was like a big swoosh. From the tip of the bottom of her hair right up to her ears. The hairdresser had been shocked, asking her why on earth she wanted to cut off such long beautiful exotic dark locks, and was she certifiably insane? Checking with her at least ten times to see if she was sure, her mother had replied yes, yes, and yes again with gusto- ‘yes’ being a word she knew she was pronouncing correctly. Having tied her hair in a tight long plait that day, the hairdresser looked as though she was on the verge of tears as she chopped the entire thing off at the base of her mother’s neck. It fell to the ground like a lifeless snake, causing the hairdresser to gasp as though she had caused a cataclysmic event. ‘I didn’t even flinch,’ her mother would smile ‘I suddenly felt lighter.’
Sabina would giggle even harder when her mother imitated her father’s horrified expression when he had returned from work that evening and seen her. Thin lipped mouth gaping open, eyes bulging from their sockets, was it possible for her father’s face to contort in such a way, to look so animated?
The entire plait was still with them now, sitting coiled in a plastic bag at the top of the wardrobe, along with old photographs, her mother’s wedding sari and letters from home. As years passed, the heat remained unchanged, which guaranteed the fan would always be on the highest setting. Sabina gently tugged at her mother’s long cotton nightdress, smoothing the fabric between her fingers, ‘Why aren’t there any eggs in the fridge?’
‘Shhh Sab, it’s time for sleep beti.’
That night Sabina found it impossible to stay asleep. The fan seemed louder than usual, and the more effort Sabina placed in trying to fall back asleep, the more she became starkly aware she was in fact very awake. Deciding to get a glass of water, she took extra care sliding out from under the sheets, not wanting to wake her mother. Entering the living room, she pictured her father asleep on the small frame, toes reaching the very end. His large stomach heaving, moving slowly upwards and downwards with each drawn out breath. She imaged the low rumble of continual snoring before she could even hear it, and standing perfectly still in the darkness, she suddenly realised there was no sound at all.
Squinting, Sabina used her small hands to feel the space around her, edging past the wooden coffee table, and closer to the fold-out bed frame. A solitary pillow lay diagonally across crumpled sheets, sunken in the absence of a body to mould them. Carefully crossing the living room, Sabina edged slowly towards the bathroom. Noticing that the door was slightly ajar, she pushed it open and entered, exhaling as her eyes met with empty space. The soles of her feet felt cool on the bathroom tiles, and Sabina wondered where her father was, and which cake shop could possibly be open at this time. She pictured him stone faced, driving down empty streets, with a large white box on the backseat of the Datsun, jostling slightly with every turn.
Faiza is an Australian currently living in Hong Kong. With a Masters in Psychology, she has always been incurably obsessed with reading and creating stories. Her short stories have appeared online and in various literary journals including; ‘e-Fiction India’, ‘Halfway Down the Stairs’, and ‘Brilliant Flash Fiction’. She also has upcoming work appearing in ‘Burnt Roti’.