Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde with a Ph.D. on the work of D.H. Lawrence. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in multiple venues including Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Curlew, The Ink Pantry, A New Ulster, Down in the Dirt, the PLJ, and Mad Swirl.
Ext. Latakia – Syria
The rattle of bullets rends the air. Smoke cloaks each house with a pall of dust. The smell of burning tires enhances the stench of smoldering rubbish that emanates from the metal containers punctuating streets and lanes. A car squeals its venom terrorizing the heart of night. Clare recognizes the odor of civil wars and bursts in tears at dawn.
Some were just writing poems; some were hoarding gold. Some were calculating how much tomorrow’s meals would cost. Some were dreaming of love wrapped up in a box. Some were devouring books to secure a future job. What have we done to deserve this gall?
I have never seen severed heads before. Television screens have turned into licensed horror and gore.
I bask within the glow of a candle flame and reminisce over past boons that are no longer ordained since electricity shortage has become a pop song refrain. I cannot plug in my PC to a fitful candle blaze or dry my very long hair with its yellow haze, or heat some water on its lukewarm rays for now tarrying showers are likely to limp for days.
INT. Clare’s Bedroom – night
Clare ventures her head out from underneath her quilt and peers through the glass of her door at the room opposite to detect any visible light that heralds the return of electricity. The dim light caught at the end of the corridor emboldens her to leave her linen refuge to resume so many deferred activities. To her surprise, she spots a pool of water on the floor, right beneath her bed, so she wipes it and thinks nothing of it, only to find more on her return from the kitchenette. She checks her favorite icon on the wall, the Last Supper with protruding figures in marvelous robes. Its back cover is saturated with water. She views the ceiling with alarm. Dripping roofs remind her of the murder of Alex by the maddened Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her ceiling has been peeling for months but the present leakage has endowed it with a murderous look. What if the water seeps through the electric wires right above her bed. She rushes upstairs to apartment above only to be confronted by iron bars through which the wind is whistling. The walls and doors she had seen on a couple of formal occasions are rubble on the floor. This is more than renovating a home. It aims at a resurrection after a demolition that has been resonating in her own room. She calls out but the place is empty of workers. She rushes to her apartment only to hear water dripping from the ceiling of the entrance hall, not far from the main supply of electricity whose wires entwine like a nest of ugly worms.
Water has always been my favorite element. I wonder what it is about water that lulls my nerves. Is it the fact that it is forever amorphous and constantly changing colors and hues, mirroring exteriors that are shattered by only a ripple or two?
Ext. Loch Lomond – Glasgow (Scotland)
The serenity with which Rob’s eyes dwell on the inhabitants of the lake is that of a Celtic sage, a Druidic gaze. They sit encircled by water on a protruding rock and though his use of words is quite sparse, he has a presence that keeps every fiber in Clare’s system aesthetically awake. Warmth begins seeping into her veins. In pairs, the swans are pearling the lake. The air is rent by plaintive screams, the seagulls’ soprano amongst ducks and geese, the discordant pleas, the beaks pecking at bread and fish, the Elysian relief.
“Their cries are plaintive,” says Clare with fascination, gladly parting with her sandwich.
“Plaintive is the word,” says Rob with wonder.
He rents a boat and rows her towards an island in the lucid lake. The ripples that lap the boat fill the crevices of her brain with peace. Her tranquilized thoughts float on the surface of the placid lake like water-lilies lulled to sleep.
“Now it’s your turn,” says Rob, pointing to the oars and awakening her from a liquid reverie.
“I’ve never rowed a boat. I might drop the oars. It needs physical exertion and I don’t think I have the muscular strength for that,” responds Clare.
“That’s what you think but as soon as you start rowing you shall feel otherwise,” affirms Rob, with an overpowering smile, leaving her no room for deliberation by exchanging seats with her and handing her the oars. The motion of the boat makes her feel like a god. Seated on a throne of water, she steers fate with a pair of rods, breathing equanimity into mountain, birds and tree-tops in an animistic temple where only Beauty is adored. And though they exchange a few words about the hardships of a student’s life, the conversation is totally between her eyes and every water-drop. The pebbled shores of Loch Lomond and the ancient rock on which they sat have become her mental Camelot.
Ext. Glasgow – Bishopbriggs
When he invited Clare to the swimming pool, she pondered over her bikini. She could not think of herself at Bishopbriggs in such a strip. The name suggested a stronghold of monks that a monastic vein in her heart had always cherished. She deliberated a bit then decided that her olive skin would let her get away with it, the indignation likely to be experienced by the prim. He had chosen the convenient time for a first visit. They were supposed to be courting but the first thing that caught her eye was the sign ‘Please No Petting’. Everything was transparent to an embarrassing extent. There were no waves within which semi-nudity anchored beneath a lid. The sun only blinked through the glass that separated Glasgow’s frost from two inmates, fire-lit. He mumbled something in her ear that had to do with a wish to see her top burst open while maintaining the decent distance, the limit. She looked at her flimsy closets splashed with chlorine water and with whatever from the stalactites of her face dripped. Demurely timid, she smiled at the owner of the compliment then scanned with newly-opened eyes the charms of a highlander, neither cool, nor tepid. He was always in a hurry. Clare was not. They had to quit the pool before she even digested the idea of being physically attracted to him. Chemistry must be deferred for another visit. She dried her hair in a white hall very much like a hospital’s, full of the odor of disinfectant. No sun to lick the dew that lingered on her arms or her forehead. He was impatiently waiting in the cafeteria, probably worrying about some commitment. Clare apologized for being late but refrained from any contrasts with Mediterranean sea-cabins. He offered her a snowball chocolate that sweetened the bitter taste of the pool’s liquid. Snowballs and snowflakes will always be associated with him.
Ext. Rosslyn – Scotland
My visit to Rosslyn in years predated the Da Vinci Code euphoria. Ours was a personal affair, no Holy Grail. It was at Rosslyn that I found my own grail, a lineage of monogamous friends, plus a shield: the noblest of deeds.
His next invitation was to Edinburgh. On their way, he parked his car with the usual ease. A cloud instantly bedimmed Clare’s glowing face. She cherished every second they simultaneously breathed, but the globe of orange chocolate that in her hand was soon seated patched up the space his fifteen-minute eclipse created. Suffused with the ingredients of her favorite juice, the molten chocolate in her mouth enthused her multiple muses. Then his car shot through the historic hemisphere. She was inhaling the medieval air, unaware. As they walked, he took her arm but she was perplexed by the shopping bag his other hand gripped as they sauntered on the greenest lawn of Scotland. Un-emblazoned knights, ungainly, approached as he handed her the loaf of bread to feed a troop of swans wading out of scintillating water.
Ext. Glasgow – the Clyde River
He holds my hand in his tgrip; our fingers interlock like the teeth of twigs; I feel his pulse slip into my ribs. He gathers my head with his other hand; I inhale, for the first time, the skin of a man, who wears his shirt without underwear. His lips slide down my heavy hair; my tremulous breath, a breeze in his ear. We kiss. Rob’s is the millionth; mine is the first on what I anticipate to be a very short list. His lips have the taste of rubber, mine a bewildered bubble’s. Does love amount to this? I prefer to nestle to his chest. The moon that had gone wild has torn her shroud to unveil my disappointed face.
“Shall we walk?” Clare composedly asks.
He instantly takes her hand in his leather grip. They wade through layers of snow, treading on Glasgow’s bridal dress. The world is eerily white, the Clyde a floor of glistening marble for snow-flakes to tap-dance their feast.
Ext. Glasgow – Knightswood Park
Knightswood Park that still exhales its breath of fugitive Knights is sometimes our haven at noon and at other times in the middle of the night. We feed the swans then have a lon,g serpentine walk. On cold nights, we sit in the car and watch the slumberous ones. These occasional drives to favourite spots are accompanied by Rob’s pieces of classical music that enhance his deep-embedded, tragic sense. Tchaikovsky’s swans paddle in his moist eyes. He has been reiterating the wish that he had met me twenty years ago, but then I would have been only a three-year-old lass, alas! He is too old for beauty like mine and what would happen in a few years’ time? I am bound to abandon him for a youth in his prime.
“I am monogamous by nature,” reiterates Clare, a sense of frustration beginning to release her tongue from a cumbersome bridle.
“It has nothing to do with monogamy,” he states in his scientific way, “when I am old, you will be young and the dictates of nature will make you seek a younger company.”
“The dictates of nature!” she repeats his words with a sardonic twist. “The dictates of my nature are monogamy and not biology. I have ethics. I do not abandon a mate because of old age.”
He surveys her face as he would some piece of architecture when he is worried about its upkeep then he relapses into one of his philosophic moods with Rachmaninof on the return music-menu. Grown fatigued with growing disparities, Clare accelerates the tempo of an inevitable release.
Ext. Largs – Scotland
The piling plates of my trendy, flat-mates; the stereo that ravishes the fiber of my walls every second of the day; the periodic cleaning of the communal toilet and frosted meals; the droning laundry that churns my brain with twisted sleeves; the window-shopping that constantly reminds me of aesthetic needs; the constricting shoes that are past their retirement age have all decidedly urged me to go on a three-day retreat.
Clare arrives in Largs on a snowy day. A taxi-driver waves at her. She inquires whether she can walk to the Benedictine Monastery. Viewing the piling snow and my slender frame, she shakes her head negatively. Clare boards the vehicle, banishing all thoughts about the fare: she is always on a budget but it is high time she loosened care. Instead, she focuses on the beauty of a snow-puffed affair. The first thing that converses with her eyes is the raven that rescued St. Benedict from harm. It perches upon the saint’s shoulder by the entrance door. Dinner is served with guest-house mates. No students’ broils, no mounds of plates, but her days are spent swirling with snow-flakes. In a pair of Wellington boots, she crunches her way up and down the unsullied coast, a tiny blemish on unbroken snow. The nuns must have marveled at her eccentric need to be constantly outdoors when life is freezing to its very core, but Clare is bent on braving an inner storm.
Clare arrives at Heathrow Airport on a foggy day. London is not in its best of moods. She takes a taxi to Rodney Court but the rooms are fully booked. She is asked to find another room until the end of the summer holiday. She stands rooted in the entrance hall and insists that she has nowhere to go.
“You can stay at a hotel for the night,” says the man in charge.
“I wouldn’t feel safe in a hotel and I am only a student with limited means,” answers Clare, standing with no intention whatsoever to leave. He senses a resolute trait in her character, so he kindly suggests that a room can be arranged for one single night to which Clare immediately consents. Behind a bulky security guard, she drags her heavy suitcases with resurrected valor. He opens the door and instantly leaves, forgetting to hand her the key. She cannot leave her suitcases and go downstairs and the phone is not working. She sits disconsolate on the edge of the bed, then barring the entrance with a heavy chair and arranging her suitcases in a train to add to the barricade more force, she heads for a much-needed immersion in the bathroom. As her aching muscles begin to lose some of its stiffness, somebody tries to open the other bathroom door that she shares with the adjacent room. The lock is on her side but perturbation is gathering its gale force. He tries again with renewed zeal and the door-handle rattles as Planet Earth does in tremors of high-magnitude.
“Who is it?” Clare shouts, snatching a towel and leaving the only comfort she has after an arduous day.
He utters something in some dialect diluted in the heavy liquor of a Saturday night, then curses and threatens, so she abandons her bath and sits wet on the bed, shaking with exhaustion and hoping he would not come to the front door that he could easily open in his intoxicated state. He gives up after a while, since her feminine scent is no longer in his nostrils. She lies in bed, her money tucked in her pouch, and with vigilant eyes she spends whatever is left of the night. In the early morning, she saunters down the nearby streets to familiarize herself with her new milieu, but apart from some smashed bottles and drunkards staggering on the street, London looks completely deserted, so she retreats.
INT. Flat – London – a students’ hall of residence
Another water saga soon follows during her stay in another students’ hall of residence. Her serious-looking mates have courses to attend, the fact that adds impetus to her desire to re-pattern her days, but insomnia is not to be shirked off, for months filtering into her blood, and since she has grown quite averse to prescribed sleeping pills, she has to deal with each sleepless night as a patient with a different disease. Eventually her sleeping habits improve but there remain odd nights, one of which makes her abandon bed four o’clock in the morning, seeking an early aquatic dose. In the middle her shower, the handle of the door turns twice. She assumes that a flat-mate has been inspired by her plan to slaughter insomnia with the Water Clan, and since there is no toilet in the shower room, she calls out, stating that she would not be long. Instead of receiving an answer, the handle does another acrobatic turn, with more force. She holds her breath and congratulates herself on the habit of using locks because apparently it is not one of her mates. The water thrill comes to an end, so she speeds up her return to her cell. The front door of the flat is locked and everybody seems to be enjoying the serenity of sleep. She softly calls each by name but no answer greets her anxious ears. She awaits them to rise for their morning courses and asks each nymph whether she tried to open the door while she was in the middle of slaughtering insomnia at dawn. The answer is No. She holds a conference in the evening they sit around the rectangular table of their communal kitchen, looking very solemn.
“Someone persistently tried to open the door when I was having a shower and I need to l know who it was,” says Clare in an assertive tone.
The four faces are petrified.
“There was an intruder last night,” adds she.
More ghastly looks.
She tries to maintain some eye contact but the four pairs of eyes look preoccupied with their own reflections on the glistening surface of the table, newly cleaned in accordance with the gravity of the occasion.
“I am afraid I have to inform the police,” says she in a resigned tone, watching their faces getting agitated.
The prettiest of all, Rosie Thornin, confesses that it must have been her boyfriend on his way out. She was afraid Clare would object to his presence, so she kept his intrusion secretive. Clare fails to understand how Rosie’s boyfriend mistakenly tried to show himself out when the door of the shower room had no keyhole at all. They plaster the incident with birthday presents which they exchange in the most amicable spirit, but the door to Clare’s trust remains bolted like that of the shower room when she is in a baptismal mood.
INT. St Andrews
Clare’s estranged sister Adele invites Clare to her residence in St Andrews. She has managed to convince an elderly man to become his permanent stripteaser. The husband receives Clare with a lukewarm smile but he has a pair of chilling eyes that are colder than Clare’s Alaskan hands. Adele takes Clare to her bedroom to display her impressive jewels. Clare feels the need to speed up her leave and her decision to skip the desert that is in the wake of a series of plates, none of which has been to her taste, dispels the clouds that have been crowding over the husband’s brow. The only other guest whom Clare obliterated from her mind the moment she arrived uneasily stirs in his chair and prepares to leave. He sat silent opposite her chair, listening to the chatter of Adele. Clare fails to promise a second visit and slips the cheque that Adele has inserted in her pocket back into the bosom from which it has emerged. The guest of honour whom Clare finds at her heels offers her a lift. She assures him that she can make it to the station but he insists Glasgow is also his destination. Mr. Whiplow gives her a synopsis of his life that matches the glossy leather of the interior of his car. Before they reach Glasgow, he stops at a deserted park that is supposedly under repair, then with a single twist, he unties the chain of the iron gate, quite bent on showing her an historic mansion which is in the middle of a beautiful lake, claiming to be the abode of a distant relative. Clare keeps calm when she feels danger prowling in the vicinity, so when he starts his sexual advances in the form of an embrace and his hands begin to unsaddle her rear, she decides to freeze his meat. Her recourse is the ice of syllables and sluggish heart-beats. She believes that fear has a scent that whets the appetite of a predator in heat.
“What comes next in this gothic scene? You throw me in the pond to dispense with my body,” says she composedly and half-jokingly.
“What makes you think I would want to kill you?” says he, with a bewildered look on his face, his hands withdrawing before accomplishing their deed.
“It looks like a movie scene,” she adds, while adjusting the attire of her indignant rear. Clare does not know what makes her so abruptly turn round since her eyes are preoccupied with deciphering the contours of his alarm. It is possibly the movement of his eye-balls. To her shock, she espies two gentlemen quickly moving away, one with a big camera in his hand, the type they use for shooting a film.
My life has abounded with various immersions in water since infancy to adulthood. All activities were marked with rivers, lakes or the sea as backdrop or a platform. I was the amphibious of the group, abandoning games and food for the company of ripples, nymphs and tree-leaf boats.
Flashback – The Mediterranean – Syria
The sea is a rippling tale of a man rowing a boat that bore Clare’s name. It was built before her eyes in their huge garden. She had seen every piece of wood that went into its making. The children always stood on shingle shouting out her name. She tried to look indignant but in vain. Deep down, she exulted at that local fame. She proudly sat dividing her attention between the noisy throng and her father, who was neither a swimmer nor a sailor yet he knew no fear. He loved to show his child the beauty of the sea. Summer tested the prowess of the wooden Clare against wind and wave but in Winter it went to sleep in a sheltered part of the harbor where it disapprovingly viewed rain. Clare visited it on sunny days but always thought it looked sad, away from waves. She waited for June to animate two slumbering oars that felt lame, but one night Clare clandestinely waded into the water of the bay. It was rowed by a stranger who whispered to his mate. Its very bones ached under the weight of a box downloaded from a ship. On the way back, a flashlight and a siren froze the blood in its veins. Two thieves and Clare were under arrest. Mr. Marinaux could not keep the boat after a terrible misdeed that cast a shadow over his daughter’s name. Clare was sold, entailing outbursts of grief. Years later, the Marinaux moved to an apartment whose windows overlooked the harbor where the boat used to be moored. Clare always reminisced over her wooden friend. Why did smugglers choose their boat to carry out their dirty work?
EXT. The Beach – Latakia – Syria – the present
Tradition has it that a decent woman does not go to the beach unchaperoned but since Clare’s friends are scattered all over the globe, she decides that she is entitled to some adventurous act and goes to the beach alone. As she is swimming towards the shore, her eyes bedimmed with salt and vigorous swimming, she sees two young men staring at her. They head towards her on their jet ski in an abrupt rush. Taken aback, she seeks shelter beneath water. The blades feel as if they are furrowing her head as the jet ski proceeds above. When her head emerges from water, she expects the sea to be dyed red with her shorn skull. The aquatic hit-and-run crew have their heads turned backwards to see the result. Another fellow on a more remarkable jet ski is gesticulating to them to immediately move away. As she is shivering, two swimmers who witnessed the scene anxiously rush towards her to make sure she is not wounded. The young woman holds Clare when she realizes that her feet cannot touch the sea floor. Clare has the comportment of an aquatic bird that people cannot tell whether she is standing or merely floating. Her aversion to slimy seaweed strangulating her feet made her develop the habit of floating the moment she wades into water. Her maritime skills can out-swim any chauvinistic shark but jet skis are a menace about which she never thought.
The next day Clare she goes swimming unchaperoned.