- Published: 16 January 2024
- ISBN: 9780241409497
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $34.99
From the Pulitzer-prize winning author of THE RETURN
It is, of course, impossible to be certain of what is contained in anyone’s chest, least of all one’s own or those we know well, perhaps especially those we know best, but, as I stand here on the upper level of King’s Cross Station, from where I can monitor my old friend Hosam Zowa walking across the concourse, I feel I am seeing right into him, perceiving him more accurately than ever before, as though all along, during the two decades that we have known one another, our friendship has been a study and now, ironically, just after we have bid one another farewell, his portrait is finally coming into view.
And perhaps this is the natural way of things, that when a friendship comes to an inexplicable end or wanes or simply dissolves into nothing, the change we experience at that moment seems inevitable, a destiny that was all along approaching, like someone walking towards us from a great distance, recognizable only when it is too late to turn away. No one has ever been a nearer neighbour to my heart. I am convinced, as I watch him go to his train for Paris, that city where the two of us first met so long ago and in the most unlikely way, that he is carrying, right where the ribcages meet, an invisible burden, one, I believe, I can discern from this distance.
When he still lived here in London, hardly a week would pass without us taking a walk, either through the park or along the river. We sometimes got into a debate, usually concerning an obscure literary question, arguments that, perhaps like all arguments, concealed deeper disagreements. I would sometimes, to my regret, for the gesture has always displeased me, tap my forefinger on his chest and let my palm rest there for a fleeting moment, as though to keep whatever it was that I believed I had placed there stable, and I would once again take note of the distinct pattern of his ribs, the strange way his bones protruded, as if in constant expectation of an attack.
He does not know that I am still here. He thinks I have left, rushed off to the dinner engagement I told him I was already late for. I am not sure why I lied.
‘Who are you eating with?’ he asked.
‘No one you know,’ I replied.
He looked at me then as if we had already parted ways and the present was the past, I standing at the shore and he on board the ship sailing into the future.
That burden in the chest, I can see, has rolled his shoulders back a little, causing his hips to fall forward so as to compensate and stop him falling, at the slightest push, face first. And yet he does look, from this distance, like a man possessed by action, moving forward, determined to enter his new life.
These past years since 2011, since the Libyan Revolution and all that had followed it – the countless failures and missed opportunities, the kidnappings and assassinations, the civil war, entire neighbourhoods flattened, the rule of militias – changed Hosam. Evidence of this was in his posture but also in his features: the soft tremble in the hands, perceptible each time he brought a cigarette to his mouth, the doubt around the eyes, the cautious climate in them, and a face like a landscape liable to bad weather.
Soon after the start of the revolution, he returned home and, perhaps naturally, a distance opened between us. On the rare occasions he visited London, we were easy in one another’s company but less full-hearted somehow. I am sure he too noticed the shift. Sometimes he stayed with me, sleeping on the sofa in my studio flat, sharing the same room, where we could speak in the dark till one of us fell asleep. Most of the time, though, he got a room at a small hotel in Paddington. We would meet there, and the neighbourhood, arranged around the train station, which fills the surrounding streets with a transitory air, made us both feel like visitors and accentuated the sense that our friendship had become a replica of what it had once been when he lived here and we shared the city the way honest labourers share tools. But now when he spoke, he often looked away, giving the impression that he was thinking aloud or involved in a conversation with himself. And when I was telling him a story, I would notice myself leaning forward slightly and catch an almost querulous tone in my voice, as though I were trying to convince him of an unlikely proposition. No one is more capable of falsities nor as requiring of them than those who wish never to part ways.
Yesterday evening Hosam arrived from Benghazi. We sat up talking till dawn. He slept on the sofa and did not wake up till early afternoon. We had to leave immediately for St Pancras Station, where he was to take the train for Paris, to spend two nights there and then fly to San Francisco. London was the place where he had lived. ‘I must see you,’ the text he sent from Benghazi read, ‘before I go to the ever, ever after.’ Paris was where, twenty-one years ago, when he was just young enough to sustain the fantasy of self-invention, he had lived for an interlude. ‘I want to see it one last time.’ He said this yesterday, just as we entered my flat.
I had gone to collect him from the airport, and the whole way home, on the tube from Heathrow to Shepherd’s Bush, he spoke in English of little else apart from his new life in America. He did not say anything about the last five years he had spent in Libya, when that was all I hoped to hear about.
‘It’s mad. I’m as surprised as you are. I mean, to plan to live indefinitely in a country I’ve never been to before, in a house I’ve never seen, one my father bought on a whim during a work trip when he was young, long before I was born. And now I’m intending to bring up my child there, in America.’ After a little pause, during which the train bulleted through the tunnel, he said, ‘Poor man,’ referring to his late father.
As the stations passed and the doors opened and closed and passengers left and new ones got on, he told me what he had told me before about how his father had fallen for Northern California.
‘He planned to go there every summer, only to then be barred from travel altogether and for the rest of his life.’
Here he laughed and I felt obliged to join in.
A young family were now sitting across the aisle from us. The man was black and handsome, with a mild defiant look in his eyes. The woman was white and blonde, speaking in near- whispers to her son beside her. The boy looked about nine years old, with a ball of curly hair that doubled his head in size and held the light in shades of brown and gold. His mother would occasionally pass her fingers through it. He stood facing us, the boy, with a hand on each parent’s knee. He swayed a little as the train moved. There was something slightly performative about them. They knew that they were a beautiful family. The three of them let their eyes rest on us and seemed to be tuning in to what Hosam was saying. He often had this effect on people.
‘Can you imagine,’ he went on, ‘a house bought on impulse, only to live the rest of your life unable to see it? Even in the hardest of times he refused to rent it. Until Point Reyes’ – that was the nearby town – ‘became allegorical, a byword for the lost and the impossible, my family’s Atlantis.’
We rose above ground and the carriage was filled with light. The beautiful family glanced at the view that passed outside the window behind us.
Having shipped all his belongings to California, Hosam was travelling lightly. I recognized the old bag. Small, blue and battered. It was the same one he had used when he moved back from Paris, and later when he would go with Claire, his girlfriend, to swim in the River Dart in Devon, as they both liked to do from time to time. Seeing the familiar object made me long for those old days when Hosam lived in London and for a good while in the flat beneath me, which occupied the entire ground floor of the mid-terraced house, with an uncared- for garden in the back. My bedroom was directly above their sitting room, and many nights I fell asleep to the soft murmurings of his and Claire’s voices.
Things had happened naturally. Hosam had returned to London and the flat below was available. He hesitated at first and I knew not to push. The low rent sealed it. A little while later, Claire moved in. She was Irish, gentle, clever and with a hard edge that made it clear that you did not have to worry about her, that the last thing she wanted was your concern. I remember once we were waiting for her at a café and she was late. Hosam kept checking his phone. I asked if he was worried. He looked genuinely baffled. ‘Worried?’ he said. ‘I never worry about Claire.’ They had met at Trinity College Dublin, where Hosam was reading English and Claire History. She liked to remind us that she too was an exile here.
‘But I tell you,’ Hosam went on, more privately now, leaning closer but continuing to speak in English, ‘these past few weeks, as we have been packing and arranging for the move, my old man, God have mercy on his soul, has been on my mind. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m convinced he knew this moment would come, that his black sheep – the son who, as he had told my mother, was destined either to achieve great things or else to be a complete failure – might one day turn his back on everything and go to America, the country from where people never return.’
We reached our station and, walking to the address where he had once lived, he remarked on some of the changes that had taken place since the last time he had visited: the old bakery that had been taken over by a supermarket, the attempted improvements to Shepherd’s Bush Green – that large triangle of grass that has always been surrounded on all sides by traffic.
He fell quiet when we arrived at the familiar street, with a row of houses on either side. I was quick with the keys, have always been, and in all the years that I have lived here I have not locked myself out nor lost my keys or wallet once. There were the unchanged common parts, with the post scattered on the faded carpet, the lights that went out before you reached the top landing.
‘But Paris,’ he suddenly said, as we were climbing up the stairs, ‘that is pure nostalgia.’
He left his suitcase in the kitchen and went directly to the bathroom, leaving the door wide open. He soaped his hands and face, continuing to speak of his plans, how he wanted to walk all the familiar streets, revisit the Jardin sauvage Saint-Vincent, where he had once taken me. And, as the evening progressed, a new expression came over his face. Sitting in my kitchen, with his small bag beside him, he appeared as if he were not only sitting beside his belongings but to one side of his heart, enduring the distances between Libya and America, between his former life and the future. Perhaps now that he was in London, at the in- between place, and had heard himself tell me of his plans and no doubt sensed my lack of enthusiasm, the true nature of what he was embarking on suddenly felt exposed: the fantasy that he could go to America as though it were another planet and none of the old ghosts would be able to follow him. It was obvious that this tour of his former two cities was in part motivated by regret for the passing of the life he had once enjoyed before everything changed, before the Libyan wind that tossed us north returned to sweep its children home.
‘We are in a tide,’ he had said back in the passionate days of the Arab Spring, when he was trying to convince me to return to Benghazi with him, ‘in it and of it. As foolish to think we are free of history as it would be of gravity.’
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