Mum pads into our room when she’s finished her set on the piano, very late. I wake and watch her undress. She pulls the covers over her and looks across the room at me.
“Goodnight, Yến, my sweetheart—I’m off to the cinema!”
Mum’s a busy sleeper. Her nights literally burst with electrifying dreams, and each morning, she shares extracts with me. Since Mum can’t tell me bedtime stories—she’s plays to the diners until midnight—the stories come at daybreak. I listen, snuggled in my bed, and when I get up, the tone of my day is set by the tone of Mum’s night.
Mum’s dreams of Vietnam are the only way she tells me of her homesickness, a homesickness I feel by proxy. The country that bore me, but that I visited only once and of which my memories are elusive.
Mum’s stories accompany me to school. It’s a survival technique, really. My daily bus journey across Casablanca has its own, very contrasting story. The chorus is invariably “La Chinoise!” and “Hey Jackie Chan!” Kids looking at me, pulling their eyes up at the corners. This public teasing is more or less accepted. “They don’t mean it nastily,” someone once said.
I’ve never known anything else but here, but I’d be loath to call it home.
Mum and I look quite similar: oval faces, straight hair, small mouths. We keep our hair chin-length and dress simply. Mum rarely wears makeup and doesn’t like jewellery because it’s irritating having “bits and pieces” hung around oneself. She reveres simplicity and keeps possessions to a minimum. She abhors fuss, clutter and patterns.
My school is mediocre. But, for the simple fact that we can’t afford anything better, I go there. It’s a pseudo-French system because I can’t manage the Arabic in the Moroccan one. Rarely do I see my handful of friends out of school. We hope there will be a day that I’ll be able to go somewhere better. Mum says that when that day comes, she’ll buy a moped and take me to school on it.
“We’ll both wear helmets with visors and nobody will see our faces.”
* * *
It’s a Wednesday morning and Mum’s just recounted a dream about a tiny tortoise, no bigger than a toddler’s hand. She found it in the road. The reptile, so recently released from its egg, must have escaped from somebody’s garden. It was trying to grow, looking for sun to warm its cold blood. But as it moved, it kept turning over on its back and once there, was stuck. Unless somebody babysat the tortoise, it would die. Tortoises are one of the four sacred animals in Vietnam. Mum’s dream was about taking care of this creature, ostensibly so resilient but, in reality, as frail as any infant. I thought of the tortoises we saw in Casablanca’s markets, crawling over one another in crates, sold occasionally as low-maintenance pets, and often as ingredients for sorcery.
When people are around, Mum and I speak in French. When nobody else is there, we speak in Vietnamese. This is our language. Since Uncle Bảo died, I barely speak this language to anyone but Mum. The morning stories are in Vietnamese. It is the language of dreams.
I will always be the token “Asian” at school. Yes, even there, I’m sometimes called Chniwiya—little Chinese girl. Barely anyone knows where Vietnam is, even though there’s been a small Vietnamese community in Casablanca for a fair while. During the French colonial period, numerous Moroccan soldiers were sent to Vietnam to fight for France, and, finding the experience of war wholly sickening and the cause totally pointless—why should they battle for their own colonisers?—a fair number defected and hooked up with locals. Some returned home to North Africa, bringing their wives, developing a new diaspora.
People slowly absorbed by people.
All the same, Casablanca’s Vietnamese remain pretty concealed. Mum came over originally because my Uncle Bảo, an archaeologist exploring Morocco’s Roman remnants, found her work as a secretary at a local music school. She’d play the piano alone during her breaks. Always more interested in what happened in civilisations other than his own, Uncle Bảo was at the periphery of the Vietnamese community, a space in which Mum and I remain. Uncle Bảo left our world two years ago but Mum decided we’d stay. Too late to move back and start again.
* * *
Casablanca Café has been our home for three months. It was the best of a few unattractive choices. The music school closed down and all we yearned for was a whisper of security.
We have a room above this swanky restaurant, located in a restored riad and established essentially for naïve tourists who genuinely believe the film was shot here. To perpetuate this belief, there’s a genuine Pleyel piano for evening diners to listen to, feeding the illusion that they’re reliving a Bergman-Bogart scenario.
Samy is the owner and one-time in-house pianist—and no, I’m not joking, Samy is his real name. He’d play the usual sort of cute jazz songs to which most people know at least some lyrics. But Samy burnt his left hand, leaving it unable to play much, and certainly not for the four hours required at dinnertime.
Enter Mum. She’s called Lan. I’ll spare you an explication of the meaning of her name because here, people don’t even try and pronounce it right, and anyway who cares what your name signifies once you’ve been detached from the language which bore it?
Mum’s played since she learnt to walk. Her musical knowledge has fed and clothed us ever since we arrived in Morocco ten years ago, Mum just divorced, I only three years old.
While Samy is officially in charge, Talia acts more like the boss. Talia is Samy’s aunt, sister of his deceased mother, only ten years his senior. Samy has a gentle face and shiny forehead, his receding hair stretching back in strands of different lengths. He is of obliging demeanour. He speaks little and unobtrusively. His aunt, in general, does the talking.
Talia isn’t her real name. Her real name is Amal, but because of her irrepressible need to be conspicuous, to be achingly unconventional, we have to call her Talia. Amal, apparently, is “too common.” Her clothes are intentionally mismatched, garish and extravagant. Her hair is as black as mine, but coarse as a horse’s tail. She has deep-lined jowls that seem to tug her entire face downwards. Her large round eyes are brown, as dark as mine, but hers cradle a regard that gives me shudders, a sensation somewhere between allergy and stage fright.
But such regards also inspire curiosity, and for some—more than you’d imagine—that’s fascinating, appealing, maybe even arousing.
Curiosity is often stirred by something other than virtue.
“I don’t like that lady,” I’d whispered during our interview-cum-visit.
“You don’t have to like everyone,” Mum murmured back, her face softly impassive, the countenance she maintains unerringly for the public world.
I watched Mum play the piano for Samy who was visibly transfixed.
The arrangement was made that very day.
In exchange for a small salary and a decent room for us to share, Mum plays the piano every night—not even one night off—while taking care of cleanliness and table-organisation in the restaurant during the day. She can even be called up for cooking.
“I only cook vegetarian though,” Mum had explained. “I’ve never cooked animals. I wouldn’t want to be entrusted with that.”
“Vegetarian? That’s interesting,” Samy said. “And complicated?”
“We manage to keep it simple,” Mum replied.
“It’s for sure a solution for the climate change, isn’t it, Talia?” Samy turned to bring his aunt into the conversation. She snorted from her corner of the bar.
“I don’t believe in extremes.”
Mum’s good with insidious provocation. She plays dumb.
“I can make nice salads…”
Talia shot a look over.
“Don’t you make spring rolls, sushi—that kind of thing with soy sauce? And—hey, be careful—I don’t want anything with cat or dog meat in it!”
She spluttered a laugh into her cigarette.
* * *
It is Tuesday. When I come home, Mum is sitting with Samy at the piano. He’s asked Mum to teach him some Chopin with his good hand. They have begun with a waltz, the one she’s played me since I was tiny, Opus 64. Mum is doing the chords in the left hand, Samy playing the right-hand melody. This makes them sit closer together than one normally would. Sometimes their hands are at opposite ends of the keyboard, but sometimes they are almost touching.
Another case of music allowing enclosed proximity between people.
Talia is at the bar. She calls me over using a voice she thinks sounds friendly.
“Aren’t they so cute together?” she whispers, giggling. “Now, Yến, come over and help me with this.”
Talia has a bunch of cocktail sticks and glacé cherries. She is sticking them into a grapefruit, grinning each time she pierces the skin.
“So satisfying, isn’t it?”
A short nod. I sustain the effaced expression Mum has taught me. I turn and head for the stairs but Talia calls me.
“Come back here, little one!”
It’s true, I’m not very tall and pretty slight as well.
“I’m going to do my homework.”
“Ah, well I’ll help you with that. You know, I went to the French Mission? Best school in Casablanca!”
Shivering with resistance, I carry my bag as though it weighs fifty kilos and take a table. I do not sit next to her. Talia stands up and straightens her clingy, green skirt. Her tights are bright orange and her stretch-lace shirt doesn’t totally cover a slightly flaccid belly, which is, in any case, partially visible through the fabric.
“Now, let’s have a look at this,” she says, picking up my math’s book.
She leans over me. I smell her. It reminds me of when you spray air freshener to mask another odour.
I bend low over my paper, frenetically colouring in a graph blue.
“That’s pretty,” she says. “Is blue your favourite colour, Yến?”
“No, it’s yellow,” I say, voice small.
“And your mama?
“Green,” I say. “Emerald green.”
I instantly wish I’d said another colour.
Mum is staring straight ahead at the Chopin Waltz, issuing guidance to Samy who has no idea that he’s massacring the piece. She’s telling him how to play the slow section.
“It’s lyrical, but sad,” she says. “Let it sing like an evening bird.”
Then Mum turns to Samy and produces a smile that I’ve never seen before.
When they finish, Talia applauds as best she can, given the length of her scarlet nails.
“Nice music, Lan. Very nice. You must play that tonight to start off dinner.”
“It’s not very jazzy,” Mum says.
“Who cares?” Talia replies. “I’ve always loved classical music.”
Mum and I go upstairs, a sandwich each on a tray. We eat on our beds, stretches of fabric covering our duvets to catch any crumbs. We play cards for a while and then Mum sends me off to shower. I get into my pyjamas and lie down with my book. I watch Mum as she puts on one of the three identical black dresses Talia has bought her to wear for the evening entertainment. They have lace at the collar and cuffs, and glitter knitted into the fabric.
“Samy looks at you all the time, Mum.” I say. “I see him staring while you’re playing.”
“Oh men always like looking at a woman at the piano, sweet Yến,” Mum says rolling her eyes. “They just can’t help themselves.”
From my bed, I hear the Chopin waltz meander from the restaurant. I peep down the spiral stairs. Talia is talking to a couple of American tourists about the piano, her scouring voice etching at the music.
“Ah yes! Opus 64—wonderful piece!” she says. “Especially the slow part—lyrical but sad. It just…sings!”
Talia moves over towards Samy who is motionless on the edge of a bar stool, gazing at Mum. Talia leans close to her nephew and elbows him. She whispers something and grins.
I can’t decide which one of them I hate more.
* * *
In the morning, Mum recounts me a dream about her brother Giang. He had inadvertently caught an entire shoal of small catfish. They’d jumped into his boat on the Mekong River and he, being vegetarian also, had thrown them all back into the water.
“Why was he fishing in the first place?”
“For river weed, of course!” Mum laughs, as if it’s obvious. “Now get yourself to school.”
I dress, smiling at the image of Uncle Giang’s frantic arms shovelling frantic fish out of a boat, while incredulous, hungry fishermen looked on.
The dream accompanies me throughout the tedious morning of French grammar drills and Napoleonic history. I am glad that it’s Wednesday. A half day. My head thick from another cacophonous bus ride, I walk up the steps to Casablanca Café. A squeak stops me.
Is it my shoes on the marble?
I look down. It isn’t my shoes but a tiny bird, a swift. It is on the ground and of course, being a bird, it wants to be in the sky. Its chirps are so slight against the manic midday traffic. I scoop it up as gently as I can. Its good wing flutters, the other is static. I walk inside, cradling the swift, the thinness of its skeleton palpable beneath its fine feathers. Mum is next to Samy at the piano again, shoulders touching. At the bar, Talia is with a thick-set, suited man. He has a large gold watch and two fat chins. Talia is talking, her voice constant and cawing.
“There’s one thing you should know about me,” she beckons the man towards her, wine glass greasy with fingerprints. “I hate being like the others. I am, I’ve always been, very…different.”
The swift twitches in my hands.
Lower your eyes.
The stairway is near.
“And the thing about me is that I’m totally cosmopolitan. Let me say that again: Cos-mo-pol-i-tan!” Talia continues. “Just look around me—there are Americans, French people, Spaniards…even…Asians!”
My little bird is inaudible against the piano and the voices. But Talia spots me.
“Ahh! My little Yến! Come and meet Thami.”
I turn. The swift struggles.
“What have you got there?”
If I walk slowly enough something will happen, some unpredicted intervention will spare me.
From a three-metre distance I stand, wordless, my small, cupped hands unable to conceal the swift.
“A bird!” Talia exclaims. “What on earth are you going to do with that?”
“It’s…injured. I thought I might help it.”
“Help it? How on earth can you help it, little girl?”
Words jitter on my tongue.
“Maybe I can find a…vet?”
There is the music, there is the clink of glasses behind the bar, there is the prattle of kitchen staff.
“You see what these vegetarians are like?” Talia waves a set of fingers at me and leans towards Thami. She folds and unfolds her legs. “Put all their energy into minuscule, sick animals when there are people, hungry and without limbs—without limbs!—sitting on our doorsteps. It’s almost…perverted!”
She turns back to me and laughs.
“Couldn’t you make a nice soup with that?”
Thick-bellied Thami examines us for a moment, my swift and me. He smiles at Talia. “I think it’s birds’ nests they make the soup out of, cherie.”
Well the joke is too much for Talia who boils with giggles, fine droplets of wine shooting from her nose.
I wait for Mum to stop playing the piano, to salvage me.
I am motionless. I am a stone carving.
I am, perhaps, lifeless.
The piano keys stop.
She is wearing her white shirt and her blue jeans. I know her clothes. She smiles that same, new smile at Samy, and then she turns.
I watch her turning, and even though I’m a certain distance away, I see something new about her.
From her slim neck, hefty against her slender body, hangs a large, emerald green pendant.
She walks over in her efficient way, puts an arm about my shoulder.
“Yến, let’s go and find a box for that tiny bird.”
* * *
Swifts are a breed of bird that can never stop moving. Their long wings carry their light bodies through the air and it is there that they eat, and there that they sleep. They climb to exceptional altitudes, riding on currents of warmth and then glide, slowly down, sleeping in layers of air as they descend. They should never be on the ground. Unless they are breeding in their high nests, swifts are in constant motion, migrating from one continent to another, never really connecting with the soil.
* * *
I hear Mum come in that night, later than usual. The music stops and silence falls for so long before her footsteps sound in the stairway. She undresses in the dark. She bends over me, sees my eyes closed. My swift’s movements practically ceased when light fell, and occasional bleats sound from the plastic box as she clutches hopelessly at life.
And just after dawn stirs, the first traffic grunts, ready to swell into the habitual clamour of Casablanca, I dress and pack my school bag. I eat a slice of cake and drink some water. I crouch over my swift, watch her staring uselessly ahead, brush her feathers with my fingertip. I say goodbye to her because we both know she will likely not survive the day. Just before I close the door I turn and look back at the room. The green necklace is on the bedside table, lurid against the muted light of morning, and Mum is breathing gently, new dreams bustling through her sleeping mind.
© Olivia Gunning
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Olivia’s interview]