The high-pitched whine of afternoon prayer emanates through the fog of heat and humidity. “Keep her in the shade.” Nola smiles and closes the door gently behind her, holding a refilled water bottle in her other hand. Eliza is already pink and sticky from the heat, and ready for her nap. Nola knows her rhythms as she puts her to sleep at night and in the day, but packs to go out. Eliza is the apple of her mom’s eye, until social plans get in the way.
Nola meets a tall woman on the driveway, wearing white jeans that crease at her thighs, rounded and shapely in high heels named Freya.
“Hey Eliza.” She bends down and gives the young girl a kiss on the head. “You won’t mind taking Maggie?” She pushes her daughter towards Nola, on a giant plastic pushbike guided by a steering handle. Freya is Grace’s old boss. Grace ran out on her family; there were hard feelings. Grace got herself into the sort of trouble you don’t play around with in the United Arab Emirates. Nola knew all about it of course but couldn’t let on; you were a part of the family until you crossed them.
Grace told Nola how she had begun Sunday evening walks to avoid the sounds of family life from inside her small windowless room. She would see the Pilipino group at church and sometimes have lunch, but she couldn’t face her little room at night listening to the sounds of family. The sticky evening heat carried her on the abras in Bur Dubai; night-lights glistened on black waters. She would stroll when it got late. On Saturdays Al Safa Park was a sea of Southern Asian faces, clean and smartly dressed, socializing, eating, outside. It’s where they came together, once a week on their only day off to be themselves. She went for the crowds, the smells from blankets lovingly layered with spreads of home cooked food, curries and jasmine flowers. Crispy pompadoms peeked out from grey kitchen towels. Love into starch and meat for hardworking middle management husbands sweating out the days for high rises that crop up like hives. No man that scaled the scaffolding could afford to keep his family local. Babies paraded with thin gold chains kinking on their fine necks, on the arms of fathers; men in their domain. Their bodies off-gassed their joy; she absorbed it to survive. She looked through the bent shoulders and broken strides along the river: the abused, broken, trapped. Then she saw him, leaning against a paint chipped Bollard, used to hold fast the great vessels long enough to unload their burdens in cargo boxes, his one leg dangling over the canal. He wasn’t happy or sad, posed arrogant in his melancholy. He eyed her up and down. She liked it: the surge of energy and moistness between her legs. It’s what brought her here in the first place, to raise money for her daughter. She kept walking.
He followed her down the path and spoke of home and the burden to prevent family going hungry. He knew some of her friends, at the hospital, where she worked her first three years. Then he told her about the bus. How they pushed it over just off the Sheik Zayed Road, two weeks ago. It fell into the gravel and they picked up rocks and sand and threw into the eyes of their supervisors. Men tired of crowded barracks, bed sharing bunks, long shifts in unbearable heat that sends men home in body bags with dilated hearts, and other ailments unheard of in the young. The revolt was crushed, said he never heard from his contact again. Men guarded now back to strolling in the orange sand to wash, wrapped in sarongs, slim as pins, solid as the earth. Snitches paid to rat on the insurgents, quashing any group discussions. She suspected there were meetings at Safa Park; it was just a feeling, amongst the families spread out on blankets.
“Things are changing.” He said.
Something about the riot broke her guard, welcomed abandonment; she let him in. Gil didn’t work in construction; he delivered Thai food on a motorbike, for most clients he looked close enough to give their noodles an authentic taste. His round face and slightly rounded eyes, broad forearms, strong from maneuvering the moped on unpaved roads and heavy traffic, felt a nice weight on her.
Grace looked through the old papers in the recycling, her English wasn’t great but she could manage. She couldn’t find any news about the insurgency. She believed him though, as she felt the heat in the conversation amongst the men at the park. Her Sundays became a search for places to make love. She would iron the straps of her cotton tanks, carefully selected from Carrefour, or hand me downs from various madams tailored to smaller fit. She put on makeup, and painted her toes.
“You’re looking lovely tonight?”
“Thank you ma’am.”
“What are you up to?”
She kept her romance to herself, Madam always asked after her love life, as if they were two women out to lunch gossiping. Grace didn’t trust her with her heart, as it broke daily at the separation from her own daughter. Her own flesh left to be raised by cast off clothes and toys, wrapped in parcel paper mailed from Dubai. Her holiday was always cut short as ma’am always had extenuating circumstances; needed her help. She remembered the look on Ma’am’s face when she asked for a small advance to pay school fees, the way she tensed up and handed her the crisp bills sliding them over onto her hand, each bill laid down with a reminder to remember her place.
So she kept to herself that first time, she had hired a taxi, she couldn’t wait to meet him, he kissed her long and hard, as greeting. She slumped over onto him in the back of the van and sobbed. He’d wiped her face with the soft animal faced blanket trimmed with satin edges. He was kind, listened to her woes about her daughter at home with her mother.
“She’ll have a better life because of you.” He said.
It’s the normal story here.
He was there waiting for so many Sundays, long hair tucked behind his ear to see her better, until he wasn’t anymore. Nothing had come of the riots, working conditions the same, and now she was with child, nothing left to do but arrive back home shame faced and alone. She thought he might be different but he always felt too good; him inside her, hot against her, his weight on her freed her from the heaviness of grief and longing she carried in the week. She wanted to be caught up in the change, the revolt, drunk on love.
She knew she had to make a plan, straight away, long before the nausea kicked in she felt something shift in her. Nola and some of the girls from the hospital who arrived in Dubai the same time, chipped in money for her ticket home. One of the nurses heard there was a problem and gave them a crisp 500 dirham note to add to the pool, just like that, what a cleaner earned in a month. The Pilipino hospital women bunked together, seven in a small room, sharing food, treats and clothing. Some of the Western girls were shocked to find out so many shared a room; the loneliness would have been unbearable without the others. Most moved onto better paying private jobs, but the gang met once a month. The socializing has quieted down as so many have married or gone back home.
They brought the money to a Sunday afternoon picnic. Grace had cried. Feeling thought she had hit the big time moving into that big villa seven bedrooms and her space enough to fit a cot bed and a little table. She missed the older women who had left their children before, who gave her comfort and guidance
She planned a recce in the closet area where she knew they kept all the important documents, the shoes were stacked in rows, near the top of the shelf that had a big box, filled with paper work, her contract, school forms and passports at the bottom. Her passport was locked, with the jewelry. She picked up a shoe, shiny beige, Jimmy Choo, not a knock off from Safa, set it down, and then opened the box. Getting the key hadn’t been difficult.
Grace told Nola how she had watched out for the key to the metal box; madam had it so if she needed to change her jewelry she had access. Her key ring lay in the bowl on the console table, when she was home.
Her friends knew she didn’t have access to her passport but then everyone knew how it went. At the hospital you handed in your passport when you signed up for duty, under the guise of them caring for its’ safety. We all knew what that really meant after working for a few months. So no one could get any ideas about their holidays or job changing or pulling a runner.
Grace waited for a party night, when the drinks were flowing and she heard them drunk in the garden. The soft rap at the door, indiscernible for most, but she was waiting. She slipped the key through the door.
“Be back in 2 hours.” Michael said, as he slipped the key in his pocket.
The key missing from the ring wouldn’t be noticed during a night of socializing, she hoped. Michael did a lot of night errands. Michael was a kind and gentle handyman that looked after people in our community. He had been here over 15 years, and had seen all varieties of trouble people could get into. He and Lorraine worked to send money home to their teenagers whom they would Skype with on Sundays. Their teenagers were distant and angry with them, so they parented the local community. He didn’t ask the reason; he came to get a key cut for me because Lorraine said I needed it.
Two hours later, another knock and I had the key.
“I need the toilet, Maggie watch your show.” Grace had said.
She turned on the TV and went to get her passport information. She’d get it for letting Maggie watch cartoons again. But it would be her last stupid gaze and smile agreeing with the lecture.
The lock popped open with a spring action the heavy bulk of it smacked against the box. It wasn’t a fancy lock, pretty basic, but enough to keep a maid out.
She went in and opened the lock, checked her passport location, verified the expiry date and wrote down the number. She was only 4 months along, yet her slim build was thickening at the middle, her body was experienced at pregnancy, baggy clothing wouldn’t hide her for much longer.
She had second thoughts for a moment, unsure of where she belonged, her daughter now 4, an abstract reality to her. Her lover, the van, and the plush blanket that they lay on together in the delivery van his friend lent them on Saturdays. How their slippery lovemaking on those hot nights and tender admissions of loss, sadness and rebellion were the closest to belonging somewhere.
But she knew if she stayed he would disappoint her, and she would go to jail. She let her daughter down once, not again. She closed the box, slipped her details in her pocket and went back to the living room.
“Grace, what have I told you about TV!” Madam said.
She came back early.
“Sorry ma’am.” She scooped up Maggie and threw her in the air, relieved to be one step closer to her goal.
“We play now Maggie.” She got out the puzzle and turned the pieces over to see the images.
“Can’t turn my back for a minute.” Madam mumbled as she exited the room.
“Can you get Maggie ready to go swimming?”
She used a kerchief to wipe her forehead as she stepped into the coolness of the van. Grace drove with Michael and Lorraine Saturday night to buy the ticket. Nola held her hand; it felt warm despite the air-conditioning. Grace’s cheeks were pink and full, on a mission now, she spoke about her poverty back home as a welcome embrace, if it meant being with her daughter. Nola didn’t allow for those thoughts to creep in, it made for such long days.
“This baby is freeing me from my prison.” Grace said. She was fierce then as she pounded her thigh with a fist. But she cried when Nola put her arm around her.
All of Grace’s savings plus the pool of money paid for her ticket. All she needed was her passport in her hands to make the flight next Saturday.
Maggie vomited all Tuesday night, then Grace began Wednesday, and Ma’am on Thursday. Ma’am didn’t get out of bed for 2 days.
Saturday she stayed with Maggie while Madam went out. She was careful not to let the curious girl know, she was loyal to her mother though they spent little time together and she longed for her attention.
Maggie didn’t want to nap today. Grace was becoming frantic, this was her chance to get the passport, and it was now or never.
She remembered the anti-nausea tablets they had used for the vomiting, they made Maggie really sleepy. She couldn’t read the package exactly but remembered Madam gave her two tablets, Grace crushed two from the box she found in the cabinet and put it in her juice. Maggie went down for her nap. Grace got her passport. Maggie didn’t wake up for dinner.
Madam was home and worried about Maggie at dinnertime. Grace was ready to sneak out that morning at 0300 as her flight was at 0600. Michael would wait outside and take her to the airport.
“We need to go to the hospital.” Madam said.
“She’s just tired, too sick.” Grace said.
“Pack her bags!” She said. Grace packed some spare pajamas, a few books, her bunny and a bottle of water and crackers. They drove to the hospital together. Grace moved the two small presents for her daughter into her knapsack with her wallet and plane ticket and documents in case she needed to leave from the hospital.
The drive goes fast and they don’t wait long at the hospital. After they assess Maggie, and take her history they admit her for observation. Maggie starts to convulse shortly after. They give her an IV. It midnight Madam is screaming and they asked if she took anything, medicine. The doctor is looking at Grace as Ma’am is holding Graces’ arm.
“DID SHE???” Madam is hysterical now squeezing hard on her arm. The alarm is beeping and a nurse runs in sticking things on Maggie’s chest.
“She was vomiting again.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“How much did you give her.??”
Grace shrinks away from the big pupils and her angry face, there is chaos. She looks over to see Maggie’s small body, her chest thrusting up and down, her head lurching back.
“I’m sorry.” All attention is on Maggie; Madam slaps Grace on the face. She spots a young health aide, looking at her. She points to an emergency exit that Grace effortlessly disappears into, expert at being invisible after years of practice.
Grace finds a motorcyclist without a delivery, leaving the hospital, and gets a lift to her building for 15 Dirhams. She hides in the parking lot waiting for Michael. He drives her to the airport. She is silent in the back.
She hugs him and thanks him.
The plane is on time and she boards with no trouble. Sleep won’t come to her, flashes of Maggie in the bed; she rubs her tummy shielding her new baby from her thoughts.