The old man. Hands shaking, Martin Martin (pronounced Mar-tin Mar-tan) moved personal items from his desk to the cardboard box provided by HR. A mass-produced “World’s Best Accountant” mug—the most recent of at least a dozen—pushed itself onto the floor, where it became many pieces instead of one. Martin stared at the shards until he could piece together what had happened—a mug had smashed, he wasn’t himself today—and then he found the dustpan and brush to clear up, which he did slowly, precisely, careful to leave nothing behind.
The brush was made by an Arabian company, who’d once upon a time sold expensive, beautiful, well-made wooden cleaning tools. Their gorgeous logo carved into the handles was a sign of quality. Now all their products were made of hard-wearing plastic, and in polyurethane their logo translated poorly, looking and feeling something like skin disease. This was what had happened over the last fifty years. Vitiligo. Beautiful brooms and people like Martin were replaced with durable, ugly crap.
He was the only one in the office who still wore a jacket, who still thought it was proper to wear a jacket, but today there seemed little point, so he removed it, folded it, and added it to the box. With his life under one arm, he left the office for the last time. See you tomorrow, his neighbor called, forgetting or not knowing he wouldn’t. Martin said nothing in return. His neighbor, after all, was a cretin.
The young girl. Anisa, nine years old. It had been quite a year for her, quite an awful, earthquake year. Her mother had met a Belgian photographer. Stupid man. He’d married her and taken them both from Jakarta to live with him in France. Stupid France. Anisa didn’t speak the language, didn’t have any friends, and hated the food. Stupid snails.
Her first day at school, an older girl ripped her hijab from her head and said, “You can’t wear that. This is a liberated country.” She threw the hijab in the giant trash dumpsters behind the school canteen.
Later, locked in a toilet stall with her dictionary, Anisa looked up the words. She didn’t understand what liberation had to do with her clothes. But she knew better than to ask. She’d wear whatever they wanted her to wear – she just wished she could go home. Stupid Paris, stupid older girl, stupid everything. She retrieved her hijab from the trash and cleaned it up as best as she could. She wouldn’t wear it again, but her mother would be mad if she lost it.
Clutching the wheel tightly, Martin was driving faster than he normally would, and not sure yet where to. Hell or home or high water. Ahead of him, he saw a young girl in the road. She was brown-skinned, scowling, and whipping a towel or something similar into the ground, over and over again. Brown people unnerved Martin. They were another new addition. He made a note to himself to be careful. The girl wasn’t paying attention, and was liable to step out in front of his car.
Which is precisely what happened.
Though he was prepared for it, she still surprised him, and he was unable to stop in time. He hit the small girl and kept going for some ten feet before squeezing the brakes.
“My god!” he shouted to the world through his windscreen. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Except he hadn’t hit her. Anisa saw him just in time, stepped out of the way, and watched the car skid still. Martin thought the worst. He was shouting “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” before he even left the car, his face an explosion of panic. For an instant, she wanted only to run away, but was unable to. Where his car had stopped, her hijab was trapped beneath one of the rear wheels.
The man grabbed her and hugged her and lifted her in the air. Anisa didn’t like this. Stranger danger, the Belgian photographer had told her. Especially for you.
“Please move your car,” she said, when the man put her back down, pointing to where her hijab was trapped.
“No!” said the man, failing to understand. “You’re okay. We’re okay.”
But Anisa didn’t believe him. They didn’t look okay.
Martin wanted to give something to the girl, but he had nothing to give. He’d left his cardboard box with everything in it at the office, sitting on top of the garbage can in the lobby. So, instead, he checked her for cuts or bruises. He held up fingers and asked her to count them. He tried to get her to tell him her name, but she refused. Of course! She must be so afraid.
Finally, he decided, the best thing he could give her was to leave her alone. Which he did, driving away, still not sure where he was going to next.
He took himself to the beach, just as it was starting to get dark. He stepped out of his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers, and walked out into the sand.
In his pocket he found a shard from the mug he’d broken earlier that day. He threw it into the sea, where to his surprise it floated for several moments before finally sinking under the water.
Anisa returned to her mother’s house and tried to hide her hijab in the wash basket, but her mother found it. “What did you do?” she said. “Do you think these grow on trees?”
Anisa told the story, leaving nothing out, and cried. “I don’t like this country,” she said. “I want to go home.”
The Belgian photographer tried to help. “Shush Anisa. This is your home now. You’ll get used to it, you’ll see.”
“Shush yourself!” the mother said to the photographer, sharply, and Anisa, despite her tears, was thrilled. Then her mother pulled Anisa in close and hugged her tight, wrapping her up in her arms and legs, till Anisa was thrilled double. She rested her face against her mother’s chest and breathed in time with her mother’s heartbeat. “I am your home,” her mother whispered, a message just for her. “I love you.”
“Oui,” said Anisa. Her first word in French, which meant I love you too.
The next day, she wore her hijab again. It was dirty, and torn, and she didn’t care. She could have taken a clean hijab to wear, but she didn’t. When the older girls came at her she smiled at them, and told them she was a liberated country too, in a language they didn’t understand.
© Christopher James
[This piece was selected by Amelia Loulli. Read Christopher’s interview]