We Once Belonged to the Sea by Diriye Osman—Excerpt

An onyx-black psychodrama coded with hallucinatory surrealism, disassociation and damage, the second chapter of We Once Belonged to the Sea looks at the tense dynamic between a gifted reclusive lesbian artist and her punk hijabi protégé.
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Diriye Osman - We Once Belonged to the Sea.

CHAPTER TWO

I AM NOT ALICE

Señora Zahra entered the café feeling frazzled. Why was she here? What was she trying to prove? That she had the courage to step outside her comfort zone? She was terrified of talking to Anissa; petrified of opening herself up to the possibility of friendship. She forced a smile.

‘How did you find me?’ she asked as she sat down.

Anissa sipped her tea and smiled back. ‘My uncle and I played super-sleuth one Saturday, asking all the shopkeepers around Bellenden Road if they knew where you lived. We were at Petitou about to sit down for lunch when you came in and ordered soup to go. We followed you around Peckham for a couple of hours until you finally went home. That’s how we found you.’

‘You do realize you were stalking me, right?’ said Señora Zahra, annoyed.

‘Oh, I know, but it was worth it.’

‘How’d you figure?’

‘You’re here now, aren’t you?’ Anissa placed some scones on a plate and passed it to the Señora.

‘I could have you arrested.’

‘Maybe,’ said Anissa, pouring the Señora some tea. ‘But aren’t you intrigued to see how this plays out?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Señora, I love your work and I love your ethos. I would kill for you to mentor me. I’m trying to get into the Imperial Institute of Arts and Sciences but I feel I’ve hit a block with my work. I love making kusudamas. I know I need to take it further, but I don’t know how. Please help me.’

Señora Zahra picked up a scone, cut it in half and buttered it generously before biting into it. ‘Your origami flowers are beautiful,’ she said. ‘But you’re right. Your work needs something else.’

‘Intensity?’

‘Purpose. You have to go beyond the purely decorative.’

‘How?’ asked Anissa.

The Señora placed the scone back on the plate. ‘Look, I’m tough. If you come to my studio I’ll drill you down to the bone. I won’t have tears or toy-throwing. Can you handle that?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you got a boyfriend or girlfriend?’

‘No. Why?’ asked Anissa.

‘If I agree to take you on as my protégé,’ said the Señora, ‘you will not have any romantic engagements whilst working with me.’

‘Why?’

‘Lovers are a distraction. If you’re going to gallivant with some boy you better let me know now so I don’t waste my time.’

‘I won’t see anyone,’ said Anissa.

The Señora got up. ‘You know where I live,’ she said. ‘Meet me there after school this time tomorrow. We’ll work for five hours. Bring your materials.’

Getting up with her, Anissa impulsively gave Señora Zahra a hug. The Señora grunted and stood there awkwardly. She eventually pried herself from Anissa’s grip before leaving the café without saying goodbye. 

As soon as she was outside she rolled herself a spliff and sparked it. Then she hurried off in the direction of Peckham Rye Park. As she strolled through the park she was lost in reverie. When she stepped on the grass, animated flowers sprouted beneath her feet. She felt she was walking on a bed of anthropomorphic bougainvilleas, hyacinths and hydrangeas. Though she knew it was the spliff that had loosened her spirit, she was relaxed, restored. After she finished smoking she went home and prepared her space for the new protégé she had, much to her own surprise, invited into her life.

That night Señora Zahra dreamt that she was sinking into her mattress and becoming a part of it. She tried to scream but her tongue, which was now constructed out of foam, couldn’t make a sound. She tried to scream, thrashing about until the mattress spat her out onto the floor. She coughed up bits of bed – a spring here, a speck of foam there – and looked around her. The space she found herself in was familiar. She remembered the Judy Blumenovels on the bookshelves. She remembered the reams of paper she had once stolen from her mother, and which were now scrawled with sketches of monsters that moved in the night. She remembered the crude doodles she had carved into the frame of her bed because she had run out of pens and paper. She felt sick and looked for a way out. She couldn’t find one. She ran to the door and through to the living room. What she saw there turned her to stone: her twelve-year-old self was sitting at the dining table, and her uncle Sadiq was showing her how to sketch properly.

‘No, no,’ he kept on saying, ‘I want to see clean lines.’

Her younger self was trembling as she sketched: her lines were wavering, tentative. Sadiq tapped his fingers on the table, an impatient conductor seeking rhythm from pinewood. He snatched the pencil from her, gripped her by the chin and looked her dead in the eye.

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‘Do you know what happens to small girls who don’t excel? They get punished. What should be your punishment? And if you scream, wallah, I will kill you.’

‘Get away from him,’ Señora Zahra shouted, unable to move from her spot, and the room swallowed her voice.

That’s when it happened. Her younger self transformed into a wooden statue as her uncle slipped his hand underneath her skirt.

‘That’s it,’ he murmured. ‘That’s good. Don’t make a sound.’ She couldn’t. She was made of wood. She couldn’t feel anything if she was made of wood. His fingers were chisels gouging her insides. When he was finished, Señora Zahra’s younger self became human again and silently continued trying to master her drawing skills.

Señora Zahra found herself back in her bed in London, sheets soaked with sweat.

Anissa knocked nervously on Señora Zahra’s front door the next day after school. She was afraid the Señora would retract her offer to mentor her and refuse to open the door. She fidgeted with the pin that was holding her hijab in place. The door opened and Señora Zahra was standing there in a tangerine-coloured tracksuit. The top was unzipped. Her collarbone was glistening with sweat.

‘Come in,’ she said, ushering Anissa into the house. Anissa stepped inside and said, ‘I hope I’m not interrupting your exercise.’

‘You are,’ said Señora Zahra, ‘but that’s neither here nor there. Follow me.’

Anissa followed the Señora down the high-ceilinged, narrow hallway, which was lined with bookshelves heaving with much-read copies of Buchi Emecheta, Janet Malcolm, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Edwidge Danticat and Dambudzo Marechera. Artist monographs on Sally Mann, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, Wangechi Mutu, Magritte, Titian, Schiele, Klimt, Kusama and various others filled an entire bookcase. There were shelves on which were delicate matryoshka dolls and Fabergé-style eggs, candles carved into the shape of female lovers entwined, and clear boxes filled with coral beads. As Anissa entered the studio she was struck by how pristine it was and how whimsical everything looked. The paintbrush containers were shaped like giant sharpeners; the sink was spotless, the tiles above it a mosaic depicting a mariachi band. There was a large oak table in the centre of the room and a computer desk with a Mac on it against one wall. The windows were scattered with butterfly and bullfrog stickers. A canary-yellow fridge stood in one corner. Señora Zahra opened it.

‘I’ve got mango juice, iced tea, lemonade. What do you fancy?’

‘Water is fine,’ said Anissa, setting her backpack down. ‘Your house is stunning. How long have you been here?’

‘Longer than you’ve been around,’ said Señora Zahra, pouring Anissa a glass of water and handing it to her. ‘Every day you’ll get an assignment and you’ll have five hours to complete that assignment. I’ll give you a title and I want to see how you interpret it. All the tools you need are here. Today’s title is “Down the Rabbit Hole”. And the clock starts now.’

Anissa sat at the table and opened her backpack. She brought out her Princess Leia pencil-case and a folder filled with origami paper in a rainbow of colours. Now a technician working against the clock, she removed her scissors, pen and Pritt Stick from her pencil-case and started working. She drew a forest on a piece of paper, abstracting the trees into strange shapes that suggested unease. She then folded the paper with precision into the shape of a rose, one now engraved with spooky patterns. Once she was done folding the rose, she took another piece of paper and sketched a sequence portraying the character of Alice from Alice in Wonderland as she chased the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole. As she sketched she loosened up, confident in what she was creating. An hour and a half later she showed Señora Zahra, who was busy drawing in the corner, what she had come up with. The kusudama was exquisite. A long, narrow stretch of paper portrayed Alice getting up from her reading spot after seeing the White Rabbit and following him into the forest before they both fell down the rabbit hole, which was signified by the stamen of the rose.

‘On a purely technical level, this is great,’ said Señora Zahra.

‘But?’ asked Anissa, anxiously.

‘It’s just an illustration.’

Anissa was disheartened by this response, and it showed.

Señora Zahra’s tone softened. ‘You need to learn how to transform your skills into something that stings like a motherfucker.’

‘I don’t know where to start,’ said Anissa.

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‘Okay, let’s play word association. The theme we’ve established is “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Besides Alice in Wonderland, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of the phrase “Down the Rabbit Hole”?’

‘Death,’ said Anissa.

‘What kind of death?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘What kind of death are we talking? Murder, natural causes –?’

‘Suicide,’ said Anissa, quietly.

‘What kind of suicide?’ asked Señora Zahra.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What is the method that has been used to commit this suicide?’

Anissa was silent for a moment. ‘Drowning.’

‘Who has drowned?’

Anissa was frightened. She had never spoken to anyone outside of her family about what had happened to her mother. Could she trust the Señora?

‘My mother,’ she said finally. ‘My mother committed suicide when I was a child by drowning herself.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that,’ said Señora Zahra.

‘I’m not looking for pity,’ said Anissa. ‘I just want to make good art.’

‘I know,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘Do you trust me?’

Anissa was taken aback. ‘Yes,’ she said, after a beat. ‘I trust you.’

Señora Zahra told Anissa to follow her into the next room. Anissa nodded, though she didn’t completely trust the Señora. What if the woman was dangerous? Anissa’s muscles tensed as she followed the Señora into a spacious room which contained six flat filing cabinets. The walls were bare, the floor spotless, the air still and somehow odourless. By the door was a thermostat. Señora Zahra fiddled with it before crossing over to one of the filing cabinets and pulling it open. Anissa held her breath. The Señora removed two zip-bags containing white cotton gloves. She tossed one of the bags to Anissa and said, ‘Wear those.’

Anissa slowly slipped on the gloves. This is how I die, she thought, like one of those moronic characters in horror movies where the audience is constantly yelling, ‘Run, bitch!’ In fact, she thought, my tombstone will probably read, ‘This bitch refused to run.’

Señora Zahra took a large painting wrapped in plastic from the cabinet. Anissa exhaled, thinking of mummies and morgues. ‘I’ve never shown this to anyone,’ said the Señora, as she unwrapped the painting and leaned it against the wall. She stepped aside. Anissa was initially startled, then spellbound. It was a portrait of the Señora as a carcass, face dolled up, dreadlocks made from malachite and moonstones, ribcage cracked open, exposing organs created from what she guessed to be a collage of the Señora’s psychosexual family history.

Anissa leaned in to take a closer look. The Señora’s organs were composed of blood-splattered photos from her childhood. These depicted the Señora as a gorgeous, giggly kid. Here she was as a baby being held by, Anissa presumed, her mother. Her mother was elegant, with sinewy arms and a sprinter’s physique, her afro puffed just right. She had a slightly bent nose, skin that gleamed like sard, and exophthalmic eyes. She was wearing a gold guntiino and exuded unmeretricious glamour. Above the image was the hand-printed caption:

Me, ten months old, with my mother, Ahdia, aged twenty-eight. She was the first love of my life and the template for all my future lovers. Two days after this image was taken, she flew off to Connecticut to complete her doctorate at Yale. I have never forgiven her for not taking me.

Anissa was unsettled by the bluntness of the last sentence. The next photograph portrayed Señora Zahra as a toddler being lifted up by a striking man. The Señora was squealing ecstatically and the man, whom Anissa took to be her father, looked equally joyful. He had a ballerino’s body, sardonyx-coloured skin and an alabaster smile. His quiff was impeccably structured. He looks infinitely fuckable, thought Anissa. The caption above the image, however, killed that thought:

Me, aged three, with my carer and uncle, Sadiq, aged twenty-one. He looked after me in Kenya, whilst my mother was finishing her studies in the States. He was the person who taught me how to ride a bike and play basketball. Crucially, he was the person who taught me everything I know about art. He also molested me at least twice a week from the ages of six to sixteen.

Anissa’s stomach dropped. She looked at the Señora and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘I’m not looking for pity,’ said Señora Zahra. ‘I just want to make good art.’

‘Touché.’

When Anissa scanned the photos again—these and ten or so others—she noticed something else. One of the figures had been repeatedly excised with a craft knife. He rarely appeared in the photographs, but when he did, the excision of his image only amplified his absence. His caption always read: ‘The man who didn’t matter enough.’

‘Who’s this mysterious figure?’ asked Anissa.

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‘My father,’ said Señora Zahra.

‘Hmm.’

‘What do you think of the image?’ asked Señora Zahra.

‘I think it’s beautiful and strange and disturbing. But necessary.’

Señora Zahra nodded and returned to the main studio. Anissa, however, stayed behind for a while to absorb what she had just seen. She considered the kusudamas that she had been constructing her entire life, the amount of tenderness and technique she had applied to her craft, realizing whilst staring at the Señora’s painting that her own work was insignificant in comparison. She felt a sliver of poison slip into her bloodstream. She now saw the Señora’s painting through a lens clouded with emulousness, adulation and even antipathy. She exited the storage room, closed the door behind her, and went back into the main studio. As she wordlessly packed up her stationery she picked up her Alice in Wonderland kusudama and examined it. She turned to the Señora, who was clearing up as well, and said, ‘I am not Alice.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Everybody sees themselves as Alice, the thrill-seeking adventuress. To me Alice’s curiosity is simply nosiness. I see myself as the White Rabbit. Sure, people think he’s obsequious, but I think he’s someone who has set himself guidelines and likes to follow the rules. Rule followers are not sexy and that’s why people project themselves onto Alice’s rebelliousness, which I’ve always found repugnant.’

‘So what are you? All punk style but no punk spirit?’

Anissa refused to respond.

The Señora looked at her. ‘Do you see me as Alice?’

‘Yes.’

Señora Zahra smiled. ‘Be wary of premature proclamations of self-definition. Life is a cyclical terror, and it will always find new, inventive ways to destabilize you.’

‘What makes you so certain?’

‘Experience.’

Anissa finished packing her belongings. As she was leaving, Señora Zahra called out to her and said, ‘For your information, I’m not Alice, either. If anything, I’m the Cheshire Cat—minus the grin, and with sharper teeth. See you tomorrow.’

As soon as Anissa left the Señora’s house, she looked at her kusudama again for what seemed like hours but was merely seconds. She crunched it up into a ball and tossed it into the street.

Anissa was swimming when she saw the White Rabbit zooming past her underwater. She swam after him and all she could hear was the tick-tock-tick of his clock in her ears. It had a flat, sodden sound due to the water. She raced after him but she was no longer in her school’s swimming pool. She was a child again, witnessing her mother’s body after she had drowned, thinking she looked so peaceful, a mermaid who had forgotten how to breathe underwater and was fine with her fate. Before the funeral, strange women cleansed her mother’s body for burial and sheathed her in white. A day later, Farhan came to pick Anissa up and take her to a place called England. She barely knew him. Her grandmother was not there to wish her goodbye. The flight to London was scary but she didn’t cry. Seeing her mother like that had inspissated her insides. She didn’t know what this foreign sensation was, this imprinted loneliness, but she carried it everywhere with her, unable to come to terms with what she had lost.

Farhan was there, though; and, after they had landed in London, he drove her to his flat in Forest Hill whilst belting Monica’s ‘For You, I Will,’ which was also her mother’s favourite song. ‘Stop the car,’ shouted Anissa suddenly. Farhan stopped the car outside a kebab shop and Anissa opened the door and puked on the side of the road. She was eight years old.

Farhan took her home and gave up his bedroom for her. He cooked for her, nurtured her, treated her like the daughter he never had. They struggled together as he finished law school and she completed primary school. When he passed his bar exam, he took her to a Patti Smith concert at the Barbican. After landing his big break as a corporate lawyer, they moved to Dulwich and he got her into one of the best schools in the area. He kept her company whenever she had a nightmare. She considered herself lucky having an uncle like him. ♦

We Once Belonged to the Sea is published in print by Team Angelica Press as a hyper-limited edition. There are only 20 copies in circulation.

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Diriye Osman
Diriye Osman is a British-Somali author, visual artist, critic, and essayist based in London. He is the author of the Polari Prize-winning collection of stories, Fairytales For Lost Children (Team Angelica Press, 2013). We Once Belonged to the Sea (Team Angelica Press, 2018) is his debut novel. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Granta, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, Vice, Poetry Review, Prospect, Time Out, Attitude, and Afropunk. He lives on a diet of Disney cartoons, graphic novels, masala chai, and Missy Elliott records.
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