It’s finished… well. The draft at least.
Today was apublic holiday in Australia, and thus a rather fruitful day for me as a writer (thanks in no small part to the generosity and support of my lovely wife, who provided me with some kid-free time).
I’m at about 2,500 words for the chapter, which is a little short really. I’d like to see about 3,000 per chapter, and some mathematical OCD in me wants the chapters to be about even in length. I’ll get over that if I concentrate. Chapters should be as long as they need to be. Word counts be damned.
That said the word count for the project is at a quite pleasing 14,000 words at the end of Chapter 3 so I think I’m on track for novel length.
Below I’ve posted an excerpt from the end of Chapter 3. It’s the first real conversation between Brian and Aisha. It takes place the morning after his first shift in her kitchen. She’s invited him in for a cup of tea, for reasons he doesn’t really understand, and he’s agreed, also for reasons he doesn’t understand. We join them here just as Aisha sends her sons off to school and our main characters are left, for the first time, alone:
Mr Ward’s a bloke from downstairs. He’s old enough to be retired. He introduces himself to me as Arthur, but I can call him Art. He reckons everyone does. The Muslim woman calls him ‘Mr. Ward’ though.
He picks the boys up for school and just after eight there’s a little group of kids of Primary school age gathered in the driveway under Mr. Ward’s watchful eye. As well as the two boys there’s a little white girl with straggly blonde hair, probably about eight, and two Asian Muslim girls in little head-scarfs from Indonesia or something. I’d been to Bali on a footy trip once and I knew there was plenty of Muslims in Indonesia. The five of them set off with Art to school, walking in a nice neat line like they’re ducklings and he marches in front like a mother duck.
We watch them go from the balcony and then I follow her back inside, to a couple of seats in her kitchen. The door stays open again. I don’t question it.
The tea is too milky and flavoured with honey instead of sugar, but I figure I better finish it. My tummy’s empty but the kitchen smells like spicy food and I’m no good with that so I keep my mouth shut and sip my tea. She sips hers and we’re both silent. She looks out the window until we see the little procession of kids making their way along the street to school.
‘I’m Aisha,’ she says as she reaches into some high cupboard for a cigarette packet.
‘Yeah, I know. You said that last night.’
She watches through her kitchen window as her neighbour walks the children from the flats to school. She offers me a smoke but I’m supposed to be quit so I wave it away. She lights hers off an electric stovetop, smokes it nervously.
‘Weird isn’t it that you’ve got a Kaden and I’ve got a Jaydin. I figured your kids’d both have Muslim names or Arab names or something,’ I say it smiling but the words sound wrong now they’re out of my head and in the air around me. ‘No offence.’
‘None taken. Kaden’s name is Islamic. It means “companion”. I named him because he came to me at a very difficult time in my life, and he is my companion, and his brother’s companion in difficult times.’ Her eyes were still out the window, but unfocussed, looking at nothing. ‘What does your son’s name mean?’
‘Dunno really,’ I shrugged. ‘Don’t suppose I thought much about it like that. My wife, my ex-wife, she just liked the sound of it and it seemed a good enough name to me. I wasn’t too fussed. Most of the names in my family are pretty normal and we figured we’d give Jaydin something a bit different. We spell it with a “Y” in the middle, “I – N” at the end. The girls’ names had a “Y” in the middle and ended in “I – N” too: “Maysin” and “Maddysin”. It was going to be a pattern, but… anyway. Just didn’t work out like that I s’pose.’ I shut up. Didn’t really know why I’d said so much, probably because I’m tired. The silence is too much for me then and I need to change the subject. ‘Old Art seems nice.’
‘He walks them to school Tuesdays’ she says absently. Her eyes haven’t come to me yet. Always they’re out the window. ‘There’s an old Turkish man in another of the flats and the two of them take turns.’ Her accent is beautiful, like she was the BBC’s Middle East correspondent. ‘The door has to stay open or people will talk,’ she says in a sudden hurry. ‘Door and blinds. I don’t want anyone saying I had you in here privately.’
‘Yeah, no worries.’
‘Not for you maybe. There’s a family in the flats next door: Muslim, like me, but not really like me… stricter, you know? It would be a worry for them.’
‘Not really their business is it who’s in your apartment?’ Her eyebrows arch in response and she looks at me properly now.
‘Never had nosy neighbours?’ she asks. I shrug gently and go back to my tea. ‘I suppose it’s not their business really, but they would make it their business. They’re very interested in me. They are concerned that my life isn’t…’ she seems to struggle for a word. Compromises. ‘Not Muslim enough I suppose.’ I set the tea down. I don’t know why she bloody invited me in the first place.
‘No. Please. Finish you tea.’ She smiles and it’s kinda beautiful in its own way. She puts me in mind of the princess in that Disney ‘Aladdin’ movie. I take a big scalding gulp of tea, nearly finish the lot, and lean back. A thought occurs to me.
‘Is that why you invited me up here? You want some sort of protection from me? B’cause I’m hired to guard the vacants that were vandalised. I’m happy to check in on you but…’ I trail off. She smiling again but this one’s almost mocking. ‘I say something funny?’
‘No. Not funny. Thank you, you’re a kind man to think that way, but you can guard your vacants. I have protections of my own.’ There’s something there in her words or her voice like she’s being mysterious but I’m too bloody tired to care too much about what secrets she wants to keep. My tea’s gone in another hot gulp.
‘Suit yourself then.’ I stand from the table. She watches me like I’m under inspection. Bright brown eyes with sharp focus. ‘Thanks for the cuppa.’
‘You’re most welcome. I will see you tonight. Insha’Allāh.’ I figure that’s like her version of goodbye.
‘Yeah,’ I say as I head for the door. ‘In shar a la.’ She smiles her friendly smile then and I watch the door close on it.
On the drive home I nearly fall asleep at a red light and the cars behind me lean on their horn until I take off. I wonder what colour Aisha’s hair is, and at home, after I’ve stripped to boxers and pulled the thick drapes over the windows and checked the 5pm alarm and gotten in deep under my doona, I fall asleep remembering her smile.