I don’t know where we’re going. All the others know, but I don’t. I’m clutching a jam jar that’s been thrust on me, clasping it to my chest as if it were my last doll, and watching them chase each other around the flat. Dad’s hands are shiny with sweat; they look like unwashed dishes—huge slabs swinging past my head. If I got caught between them, that would be it—splat, squashed head.
My brother’s growing out of his bag like a stalk, standing with both legs in the bag, unpacking things. Mum tells him off and he puts them back. While Mum’s in the kitchen, he takes out the pirate ship in its big cardboard box and pushes it under his bed. Mum comes into the hall where I’m standing and bends down to me, her forehead hanging over me like a bell, like the sky. I take one hand off the jam-jar doll and run a finger over her face. The sky is greasy. Mum knocks down my hand and thrusts more jars on me; I hold them tight. There are such a lot, I can’t see past them. She puts a bag down on my feet and says: “I want you to eat properly on the journey; you can be in charge of the provisions.” I’ve no idea what provisions are, but I’m glad they’re something sweet, not chicken in tinfoil.
We go downstairs; it takes us a while. We live on the top floor, where the rooms are all beams and sloping ceilings. On the ground floor is an undertaker’s; it always stinks down there—not of corpses, but of something I don’t know and can’t get used to. The jars clink in the bag as I drag it down the stairs behind me. Dad’s about to take it off me when a neighbor opens his door.
“Going to see Mum and Dad. Been a while.” “First time back?”
“You never forget the first time.”
Dad answers the neighbor’s questions as if he were telling him a bedtime story, stressing every word and making his voice go up at the end. My brother’s gone on ahead. I pull the bag carefully past Dad and try to catch up with him. It stinks and it’s cold. Downstairs, behind the undertaker’s display window, are people. I’m scared of the faces sitting there behind the glass, in the office; I’m scared they might be green and dead, so I never look until I’m out on the street. I scan the ground for my brother’s feet. Dad comes out of the house and pulls me along. I don’t look up until I think Mum will be waving goodbye—and she is; her hand hangs out of the window for a moment, then the window flies shut and Dad begins to sing.
Pora, pora poraduemsya na svoyom veku. It is time, it is time to rejoice in this time.
The tiles in the toilets at Atatürk Airport were cool on Ali’s left temple. The blur in front of her eyes refused to come into focus: in the gap between the cubicle wall and the floor, heels smudged to lumps of coal, leaving black scrawls in the air as they scraped past. Ali heard a babble of voices but no words. Echoey announcements. She tasted chicken. She hadn’t had any on the plane—hadn’t eaten chicken for years—but there was a putrid fowl stuck in her throat. She’d been here before like this—lain on the floor with a dead bird in her throat and shoelaces creeping toward her like insects. But when?
Her eyes were dry from the flight; her eyelids rasped when she opened and shut them. Chronic lack of tear fluid, the doctors had told her, a while ago now. “And what should I do—use eye drops?”—“Just blink when it hurts or itches. Keep blinking; the fluid will come automatically.” But it was no good. She breathed slowly, listening. Outside, stiletto heels and bouncy rubber soles set the rhythm. Everyone was in a rush—desperate to get out of the terminal, out of the non-air. They were being met off the plane after their long flights—just a quick dash to the toilet, a dab of powder on the rings under their eyes, a tongue over their lips, a comb through their hair, and they could go and leap into the arms of the people waiting for them—like plunging into warm water.
Ali had no idea whether anyone was waiting for her; she hoped so, but didn’t know. She lay on the floor, beating her eyelashes the way a fly beats its wings. She longed for a cigarette to smoke away the taste of flabby boiled fat on her palate, and the craving pulled her up by the scruff of her neck and out of the toilet cubicle. Careful not to look in the mirror, she steadied herself against the basin and held her lips under the jet of water. A woman gave her a nudge and signaled to her that it wasn’t safe to drink. She held out a plastic bottle to Ali who pressed the narrow bottleneck to her lips and drank noiselessly. The woman took back the empty bottle and ran a hand through Ali’s curls as if to tidy them. Then she ran her thumb over the thin skin under Ali’s eyes and over her pointy chin, grasping her chin for a moment between finger and thumb. Ali smiled; the woman smiled too. They walked slowly out into the lobby, Ali following the woman and a crowd of others who seemed to know the way. She walked alongside the moving walkway where people were jostling one another, followed the echo of the marble floor and got in line for passport control. She began to grow impatient and tried to push the queue forward, but it was stuck and she could only look left and right. Her head was spinning. All the world was in the queue: miniskirts, burkas, mustaches of every style and color, sunglasses in every size, silicone lips in every shape, kids in buggies, kids on backs and on shoulders and between feet. On all sides the crowd pressed in on Ali, so dense she couldn’t fall. A little girl pushed against the Plexiglass wall at the barrier and a pane of glass fell out with a bang. The girl screamed. Her mother forced her way through the crowd and gave her a fierce shake.
Ali was sure she tasted chicken in her throat again. She rummaged for her passport.
The passport officer stared for a long time at what Ali supposed must be her photo. He looked up at her, then back at her passport, over and over, as if every time he could look a little deeper. He was a young man, younger than Ali, but he already had the shoulders of an old man, sunken and rigid, and his hollow chest didn’t fill his pale blue shirt. Sitting there in his cubicle, he seemed miles from the airport, miles from his country, as though he were looking through the Earth’s mantle and back again into Ali’s face. She found herself wiping her chin; she hadn’t thrown up—or had she? She was suddenly uncertain. Was there something on her chin? It felt as if puked-up chicken were hanging out of her throat. Mustering all her energy, she pulled up the corners of her mouth, and her left eyebrow shot up with them.
The boy on the other side of the glass looked at her, climbed down off his chair, got out of the cubicle and went around the back. Ali propped herself up on the narrow counter in front of the glass, watching him through dry, scratched eyes. He showed her passport to a colleague, tapping one of the pages with a finger and shaking his head. When he came back, he said something she didn’t understand, but she knew what was bothering him: he wasn’t sure it was her. She didn’t look anything like her passport photo; she’d had her hair cut, and in other ways too her face had changed. Everyone said so; even her own mother didn’t recognize her in photos. But what did that tell you? The other passport officer joined his colleague and asked Ali the standard questions. Ali lied, so as not to confuse the men any further, saying she was visiting a good friend—the usual.
“How long are you staying?” “Dunno.”
“You can’t stay more than three months.” “I know.”
“First time here?”
“Is there something wrong with my passport?” “The woman on the photo looks quite like you.” “That’s because she is me.”
“Yes, but there’s another possibility.” “What?”
“That this is a fake passport and that you—” “That I what?”
“We have trouble in this country with Russian imports. I’m talking about women. Imported women. Women trafficked from Russia.”
Ali opened her mouth to say something like: “But I’m from Berlin!” or: “Do I look like a trafficked woman?” Instead she burst out laughing. She tried to fight back the laughter but it shot out of her and flew at the pane of glass between her and the two passport officers, who looked at her in disgust. Ali pressed her fingers to her mouth and her bag fell to her feet. She looked down and then up again. She looked about her and saw the entire queue—all the miniskirts and sunglasses and mustaches—turn and whisper. The passport officers waited for Ali to readjust her blushing head and put it back on her shoulders. Her eyes were wet with tears of laughter, and she looked into the men’s confused faces and tried not to start grinning again.
“Is there any way I can prove I’m not a Russian whore?” she asked. The two passport officers looked at her as one man. They looked right through her. Then one of them raised his hand and brought his stamp down on the counter three times without taking his eyes off her. There was a buzz. Ali grabbed her bag and pushed open the glass door.