Midnight Call by Safiya Cherfi

Jun 19, 2023

A heart beating in time with a clock. His own heart. The clock, the one with the classic black-and-white hexagons of a football and the crest of Liverpool FC in gold. The light from the lamppost outside slips through the gap in his curtains, illuminating the clock. Karim turns, puts his pillow over his head so as not to hear the ticking of the second hand: the constant reminder of time passing, taking him closer to tomorrow. His nerves heighten; sleep he has been seeking for hours pulls further away still. He should have volunteered for something, anything; Karim berates himself again. But he didn’t sign up for any events, any races, hoping somehow he would be forgotten. Instead, the teacher put his name down for the four hundred metre race.

Karim doesn’t care about winning but he can’t bear how awful it would be to lose. He pictures himself tripping, falling on the first lap, and the space between him and the other racers growing. Then struggling to finish and eventually coming last. His classmates laughing. Perhaps even the teachers would struggle to maintain encouraging faces.

Restless, Karim turns over again. The bathroom light opposite his room flicks on and seeps through the bottom of his door. His father is still awake. His mother works nights at a care home; his father works long days at a warehouse. Their front door revolving – only one parent home at a time. Except at breakfast. 

In the mornings, Karim’s father chops tomatoes and cucumber while eggs boil and fava beans simmer, or he cuts fruit into delicate shapes and butters toast as Karim gets ready for school. Then the three of them eat around the small table in the kitchen, talking about their nights or the days before, licking fruit juice from in-between their fingers. Lately, they talk a lot about Teta, Karim’s grandmother in Cairo. 

His father’s eyes tighten as he updates Karim’s mother on her condition. After years of saving and scrimping, they will get to see Teta for a fortnight during the summer holiday, his parents promise him. The tickets aren’t booked yet; his father is still browsing flights, waiting for a good deal.

Karim’s parents often exchange subtle words in Egyptian Arabic when Teta comes up and glance at Karim, who can’t fully understand them. They were afraid to teach him his mother tongue as a baby. Afraid that it would affect him learning English. They wanted, above all, for Karim to speak English like a native. 

But now Karim has to catch up, refresh his Arabic, get ready for the summer with his cousins. The last time they went to Egypt, nearly five years ago, Karim picked it up with ease but, as his parents are still hesitant to speak only Arabic with him, he’s grown rusty. And sometimes it suits them that Karim can’t understand everything.

The toilet lid hits the seat as his father flushes. Karim lifts his head off the pillow, following the sound of his father’s footsteps down the hallway to the living room. When Karim’s father walks him to school tomorrow, he will apologise for not being able to watch his race. Karim will say he really, really doesn’t mind and his father will laugh. 

Karim hears his father’s phone. It must be on top of the coffee table, vibrating.

‘Allo?’ his father speaks. 

Karim sits up. Something in those two syllables makes him forget about the race tomorrow. His father’s voice reverberates through the walls, but Karim can only make out the odd word. When. Oh God. Oh God. 

He gets out of bed and creeps towards the door. He opens it carefully – not that his father would hear him over his own words – and tiptoes the short distance to the living room. He still can’t make out much of what his father is saying, his voice growing heavier, huskier. 

Karim knows he shouldn’t be eavesdropping; he never has before. But something about his father’s tone scares him. He doesn’t know how many minutes pass but eventually he hears him say goodbye, and the thud of the phone on the coffee table. Karim doesn’t move. 

He should go back to bed now. If it’s important his father will tell him. Or will he just murmur it to his mother in Arabic over breakfast?

The living room is silent now. Karim wonders if his father has fallen asleep on the sofa like he often does. He nudges the door open. Baba is sitting on the sofa, head hanging between his shoulders, his hands covering his face. Karim sees his baba’s shoulders shaking, bouncing, and for a moment he thinks he is laughing before he realises the truth: he is crying.

Karim steps back in shock and knocks his elbow against the doorframe. His father looks up, confused, but his eyes soften. He stretches out a hand to Karim and beckons him over. 

Karim remembers his last birthday, when his father told him he must be nearly the same height as Teta now, their petite matriarch. He told Karim he would be able to kiss her cheek when they go to Egypt in the summer. Karim knows he will not be able to do that now.

His dread about tomorrow, forgotten. Two hearts beating in time, in pain. Karim wishes he could go back to believing the worst thing he could lose was a race.

Safiya Cherfi is often found reading, writing, or wishing she could be. She has short stories published in Gutter, The Lumiere Review, Bandit Fiction, and more. She is forever working on some novel or other. She tweets @safiyacherfi

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