When I first lived with Teita, each night when she would finally leave me in the darkness of my bedroom, fed and warm, I’d bring out a torch and start reading. Teita was instructed to remove all candles from my room; my parents worried that I’d set the house on fire. Not long after she tucked me in, the generator would cease its droning, the walls and doors would stop shaking and my tea would stop vibrating in its hourglass vessel. While the fluid building up behind my eardrum dimmed the daytime racket like the depths of the water, the silence that flooded my room at night lifted me. It was as fragile as the stillness before races, when my pulse would calm to an even undulation so soft that it was ready for touch. Those nights, I rose to the surface as if I were the city’s gentle skin.
The absence of noise transformed the words I was reading so that I felt compelled to sound them aloud, as if they were creatures whose names I had to utter to understand, even though I couldn’t hear the sounds myself. The thump of my underwater heartbeat rekindled, and I felt the world unwind around me as if a knot had loosened. The line I wanted to follow across the page became apparent, pulling me as if it had its own gravitational force. Night turned into dawn, but without hearing the birdsong, I couldn’t tell.
I didn’t go to school during those weeks, when everything had to be repeated loudly to pierce my bubble of silence. Instead, I passed whatever time I had outside, drawing the outline on the pavement of the shadows cast by the trees. On their return, my parents would insist on hiring a tutor to help me catch up with the rest of the class, but for as long as they were away, I drifted aimlessly through the days, content to think of nothing but names to give to each chalk leaf I marked on the ground.
As the day progressed, the shadows moved, and my chalk outline seemed to have been exposed to the winds of time. I saw its future blown off to the side, bent out of shape, destroyed. Its tilt reminded me of my flight path when I was thrown into the pool, and I stroked my ribs where a purple bruise had formed. The sting was still there, familiar.
The owner of the kiosk on the corner paid the street-sweeper, Salah, to leave my sketches intact, so I could continue them the next day. On my third day of drawing, Ramy, the kiosk owner’s son, accidentally sent a ball flying in my direction. Assuming it was someone baiting me for attention, I barely glanced up. He stopped to pick up a piece of chalk lying a little way away from me and wrote out a word on the pavement. I looked at the letters, then at his feet. Green trainers, old but clean, their shape loose like sagging skin. He prodded his finger on the ground where he had written his name, then gestured to himself, before pointing at me and again at the pavement. The shadow shifted softly across its outline as the sun carried on along its path. I wrote my name down beside an escaped leaf oblivious to the cage I had set for it.
I spent all my time with him after that, aside from my swims and night-time reading sessions. ʾUmm Saber, the housekeeper, seemed pleased I had made a friend, though she never invited him in. She used to try to communicate with me through gestures, but despairing of her inability to get her message across, she would sometimes raise her voice so that I would hear. It was an effort for her, so we didn’t talk often.
Teita trusted me in Ramy’s company, so I trusted him. For as long as I struggled with my hearing, he walked with me around the neighbourhood, holding my hand, interlocking his arm with mine, becoming my ears if I was stopped at a checkpoint or if anyone tried to speak to me. Doormen, drivers, street-sweepers and police officers addressed him to reach me. We developed our own language. A squeeze of the hand: car coming. A tap against my wrist: stop, look up. Each time I felt his fingers at my joint, my heart would skip and my throat would tighten just as they did when I was launched in the water, and I would hold my breath until my pulse slowed and my throat relaxed. I think I must have squeezed his hand when that happened, because I would feel him squeeze mine back. In my confusion, I’d move closer to him if I was in the way of the road, or pull him closer to me if he was, but there’d be no car, just us.
A thumb rolling over my index finger meant I’m talking to you, which would draw my eyes to his. I memorised the sight of the square scar in his pupil, like a bit of dirt, granular and darker than the surrounding brown. I didn’t spend long enough in that suspended state of deafness to learn to read lips, but I followed his as he moved them. ʾUmm Saber would refill bottles of water from the filter and place them next to us on the pavement, where we scrawled more notes for each other in chalk. The streets were mostly empty, since surrounding checkpoints made it difficult to pass through the neighbourhood, but eventually, Ramy’s father insisted that we use a notepad for our messages. On the blank paper, it felt as though we’d been thrust into a room alone together, and suddenly our words seemed foolish, like schoolwork, an exercise with no bearing on the real world.
Whenever Ramy helped his father in the evenings, I would hold my reading session at my window overlooking the kiosk. He would lift crates and top up the generator his father used to power the fridge. I’d observe as he became transfixed by the packets of cigarettes and chewing gum he was rearranging, or while he ran his hands over the newspaper display stand to make sure they were aligned. I offered to sneak him into the pool so he could watch me train, maybe even go for a swim himself, but he pointed to his eyes and then all around, dusted off his hands and waved the air away. They’d see me and kick me out immediately.
Most nights when he worked, Ramy would look up through the trees to see me reading by the window. Meeting my eye, he’d smile and wave up at me, before his father called him back to deliver food to the guards at nearby checkpoints: trays of tea, cold cuts, baladi bread and cartons of cheese. I’d stare at the last corner he had turned and wait for him to come back. A few times, he was delayed for long enough to make me worry. Other times, he wouldn’t look up at my window but would keep his head down as he walked, staring at the asphalt. On one such occasion, sensing his son’s distress, Ramy’s father knelt in front of him with a hand on one knee, the other hand pointing into the distance, and spoke words I couldn’t hear. Ramy gave him a hug and sat down. He started to make origami animals, braiding and un-braiding a bit of twine until it tore or his father charged him with another task. On those nights, Ramy’s father would glance up at me as he got back into the kiosk booth, then quickly glance away.
They were teasing me, Ramy wrote, when I asked why he was upset.
He shrugged and stood up, pulling my hand, raising me to my feet so we could go for a walk.
This extract is from Mohamed Tonsy’s You Must Believe in Spring (Hajar Press, 2022), available in paperback and ebook at hajarpress.com. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Hajar Press.