Pulp.net - The Sound of Sky

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Dariush Alavi
‘No,’ she said. ‘The sounds must be separate. Listen.’ She took a deep breath, as though it took an effort to concentrate. ‘K-a-p.’ Each of the three sounds was curt and sharp and definite.

‘Listen,’ she said. ‘It’s not keeuuh, aaaah, puuuh, but k-a-p. Kuh, ah, puh. Short and clear, all right?’

He nodded, his dark eyes clouding with anxiety.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s try again. Say it after me, yes?’ He nodded once more.



‘Try again.’ Pause. ‘K.’


She smiled, then looked away, not wanting to make him think she was laughing at him. She ran her fingers through her hair, sighed and raised her head. This time, he turned his head away. ‘Shall we stop for five minutes?’ she asked.

‘Okay, good,’ he said, smiling.

Leaning back in her seat, she looked at the room. Could they possibly have given us anything drearier, she thought. The cardboard walls featured a few fist-shaped holes. Blobs of blu-tack adorned the ceiling. The surface of the table was covered in scratches and unintelligible biro grafitti.

And the air is foul, she thought. How do they expect anyone to learn anything in here when the place hardly ever gets any oxygen?

She saw Rafiq looking at her. She held his gaze and smiled. Maintain eye contact, she said to herself, but don’t make it provocative. Remember what they told you about how a direct look from a woman can be perceived by some of them.

‘You are very good teacher,’ he said. ‘My young sister, she is also teacher, yes?’

‘Oh, really? Your sister is also a teacher? Excellent, excellent. What does she teach?’

He shook his head, looking for the word. ‘Shh... shee... sheemistry?’

‘Chemistry? Science?’

His eyes brightened and he smiled. ‘Aha, yes, yes, chemistry.’

‘Oh, excellent. Chemistry. That also starts with kuh. See: k. Chemistry. Like cap.’

‘Yes, yes. Chemistry.’

‘That’s right. Chemistry.’

They smiled at each other again and allowed a few moments of silence to drift between them. She noticed the way the light fell on the skin of his face, bringing out several shades of brown.

‘I also want be teacher,’ he said, ‘but my father say No. I must be electric, electric—’


‘Yes, he say I must be electrician. But I really like be teacher.’

‘Oh, that’s a shame. What did you want to teach?’

‘I like mathematic. When I am small, always I am best in class in mathematic. Always everybody telling me I must be teacher. And I like, but my father say No.’

‘Well, you never know. It could happen. There’s still time. Maybe that’s what you could do one day if you go back to your country.’

Bugger, she thought to herself, why did you have to go and say that?

His response was immediate. ‘I don’t like go back.’

She raised her hands in a placatory gesture. ‘I know, Rafiq, I know. I didn’t mean to say that, I’m sorry.’

‘But I don’t like go back.’

God, are those tears filling his eyes, she thought. Please don’t cry. I couldn’t cope with that. Not a grown man crying.

‘No, I know Rafiq. But we really shouldn’t talk about that, should we? It was my fault. I’m sorry.’

He took a deep breath. He turned away for a moment and when he looked at her again the tears were gone, but the anxiety was stronger.

‘Shall we carry on?’ she asked.

‘Yes, good.’

She pulled her chair closer to the table, picked up the small whiteboard and wrote the word ‘cap’ on it, leaving large gaps between the letters. ‘Right then, let’s take a look at the board.’

His gaze fell on the word.

She pointed at each of the letters in turn. ‘K-a-p. K-a-p. Makes cap, yes?’

‘Cap,’ he repeated.

‘Good, say the sounds.’ She pointed at the first letter.

He was about to speak, but then he looked up at her, smiling. ‘In my country, I say ‘pak’.’


He pointed at the letters on the whiteboard, moving from right to left. ‘Puh. Ah. Kuh. Pak. Pak. I read from this side, understand?’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ she laughed. ‘You read in the other direction, don’t you? Yes, you’re absolutely right. If we read from right to left in English, then this would be ‘pak’. Well done.’

He laughed and pointed at the word again. ‘Pak. Pak.’

As he repeated it, the word took on a different tone in her mind. She looked at Rafiq’s face, but he was still smiling back at her. Rubbing the word off the whiteboard, she cleared her throat and muttered, ‘Maybe we should do another one now.’

• • •

A few hours later, during the drive home, she remembered that she needed some milk and eggs. But can I be bothered to stop off, she asked herself. Oh come on, Jennifer, sort yourself out. It won’t take two minutes.

She parked just outside a corner shop. As the man behind the counter handed her a few coins in change, she found herself staring at the shape of his face. He’s got the same prominent brow, she thought. But his jaw isn’t nearly as strong as Rafiq’s.

As she walked back out, she didn’t notice the headline on the front page: ‘Trafficking tragedy: twelve die.’

• • •

Rafiq wasn’t her only adult student. He wasn’t even her only student at the detention centre. But he was the only one who got every single minute of the sixty which she was supposed to devote to him once a week.

A few weeks later, sitting at the same wobbly table in the same dimly lit room, she gave him a list of words to copy out. As he sat bent over a sheet of lined paper, she watched the intensity of his facial expressions as his hand struggled to form the unfamiliar shapes. Had he been a child, she would have reached across and adjusted the way he was holding his pen, but the rules prevented her from touching him.

He’s got lovely hands, she thought. Not at all how I would have expected them to be. Gentle, clean and smooth, with just the lightest covering of hair. And his fingers are so slender, as though he should be a poet or something.

She became aware that he was looking at her. She felt the colour rising in her cheeks and along her neck. ‘Sorry, please Miss Atkins.’

She cleared her throat. ‘It’s Jenny, remember? Not Miss Atkins. Just Jenny, please.’

‘Okay, yes, I forget. You have children, please?’

‘Do I have any children?’

‘Yes, please.’

Now why should that question make me realise how tense my shoulders are, she thought. ‘Well, no, actually, I haven’t got any children. But I’d like to have some one day.’ She saw a sentence from a staff handbook flash before her eyes: ‘On no account should you reveal any personal information.’

Rafiq shook his head. ‘No children? But you are very beautiful woman. You must have one beautiful daughter same like you.’

She laughed and shook her head. ‘Well, thank you very much Rafiq.’

‘I also like have children. I like one boy, one girl.’

‘Well, if that’s what you want, then I’m sure that’s what’ll happen.’

‘Yes,’ he said, nodding, his voice drifting into silence. ‘One boy. One girl.’

She tapped the whiteboard with her pen. ‘Why don’t you get on with the list, please.’

He looked at the sheet before him. ‘Sorry, yes, yes. Please, Miss Atkins, what is this one?’

She looked at the word. ‘Okay, well it’s got three sounds. What d’you think the first sound is?’

He glanced down. ‘Mmm.’

‘Good. And the last sound?’


‘Yes, and those two circles in the middle make just one sound: oooo.’


‘So what d’you get when you put them together?’

He looked down at the word and repeated the sounds in his head for a few moments. ‘Moon? Aha, yes yes, moon. Like in sky, in the night, yes?’

‘Yes, that’s right, the moon in the sky at night. Well done.’

‘Moon. Moon. Moon.’ He repeated the word to himself a few times under his breath. Then he smiled and looked up at her again. ‘Like your face!’

She couldn’t stop a brief giggle emerging through her lips. ‘Sorry?’

‘Your face. Is like moon. Very beautiful.’ He kept staring into her eyes, his smile growing wider.

‘Rafiq, I really don’t think—’ she stopped, not knowing what else to say.

He looked worried for a moment. ‘I talk something bad?’

‘No, no,’ she said, waving her hand at him. ‘Not at all. It’s just that… well, I mean, we only have one hour a week together… and it’s important that you improve your reading… so I think we should work really hard on our lesson and not talk about anything else, okay? D’you understand?’

His smile returned. He nodded and said, ‘Yes.’

She took a deep breath and began flicking through a folder in front of her, looking for a worksheet which she could slide under his nose.

• • •

Later that evening, she wrapped herself in a heavy dressing gown, made herself a mug of thick hot chocolate, settled into her sofa and picked up her mobile to give her best friend a ring.

‘But he’s a refugee,’ she insisted. ‘An illegal one at that. And I expect he’ll be sent back any day soon.’

The voice at the other end laughed. ‘Well then what’s the problem, Jen? Just enjoy the attention. I’m sure it’s harmless.’

‘But… well, I don’t want to lead him on, do I?’

‘Lead him on to what? I thought you said it’s not as though anything could happen.’

‘I know, but… the whole thing’s just beginning to feel really wrong. Really uncomfortable.’

‘Why? All he’s done is given you a few compliments.’

‘Yes, but… It just feels as though there’s more going on. And I don’t want things to get complicated at the moment. I’m not ready for that yet.’

‘What d’you mean ‘more’? Are you starting to have feelings for him?’

‘What? No! I mean… I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know? Well, then, you are, aren’t you? That makes it all totally different.’

‘Why? Why should it?’

‘What on earth d’you mean? Of course it makes it different! If you’ve got feelings for him and he’s got feelings for you, then maybe you need to give those feelings a chance to develop, to see if they lead to anything.’

‘Exactly. Like I said. Complications. For which I am not at all ready.’

‘For God’s sake Jen, it’s been three years. When are you going to be ready?’

She began thinking of an excuse to end the conversation. ‘I don’t know!’ She took a deep breath. ‘And anyway, I haven’t got a clue what he’s like, where he comes from, what sort of person he really is. If I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m finding him attractive purely because he’s exotic.’

Laughter from the other end again. ‘And what’s so bad about that?’

‘Well… it’s a bit superficial, isn’t it?’

‘Oh my God, when did you become so politically correct? Tell me one thing that’s wrong about finding someone or something attractive because they’re exotic. There’s got to be a starting point, hasn’t there? And I think “exotic” makes a pretty exciting one, to be honest.’

‘Maybe… but anyway, look, I’ve still got some lessons to plan for tomorrow, so I’d better…’

‘Yes, fine, you’d rather stop talking to me. Don’t worry, I get the message. But can I just say one more thing before you rush off to do your dutiful teacher bit?’

She chuckled. ‘Go on.’

‘While you’re up there on your high horse not wishing to patronise those less privileged than yourself, you might like to spare a thought for the fact that he probably finds you attractive because you are equally exotic to him. And I doubt he has a problem with that.’

That night, she dreamt of running her hands through his black hair and caressing the tops of his shoulders with her fingertips.

• • •

A week later, Rafiq was copying out another list of words.

‘Aha,’ he said at one point, looking up. ‘This word. It is very good word.’

‘What is it,’ she asked.


‘Sky? Why’s that such a good word.’

He spent a few moments gathering his thoughts. ‘Sky is very good. I see this word and I am happy, because I cannot see sky for so many days.’

‘But you’re allowed out every now and then, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, but I like to see sky when I want to see sky, yes? Sky is for everybody. Sky is the same for everybody. And everybody have to see sky when he want to see sky, yes?’

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘That’s beautiful, Rafiq. You said that very well.’ And I just wish I could reach out and touch one of your hands, she thought. Just for a moment. I wonder how long it’s been since you’ve been touched.

‘Please Miss Atkins,’ he said. ‘What is the sound in sky?’

She thought she detected a glint in his eyes, but decided she was mistaken. ‘The sounds? Well, you tell me.’

‘No, please, you tell.’

A pause. ‘Okay. It’s Sss. Kuh. Ai. Correct?’

‘But what is the sound in my country?’


‘In my country, what is the sound? You remember, I read from other side.’

‘Oh yes, I see. Hang on.’ She closed her eyes for a moment. ‘Okay, it’d be Ai. K. Ss.’


She smiled for a moment, not sure where this was going. ‘Ai. K. Ss.’

‘You,’ he said.

She paused for a moment. ‘Sorry?’

‘Ai. K. Ss. You. Ai. Kss. You. I. Kiss. You.’

She turned away and looked at her watch. Five minutes to go. No one would ask any questions if she ended the lesson early.

• • • 

A few moments later, she was sitting in her car, driving away from the detention centre. She felt tears trying to spill out of her eyes, but she squeezed her lids shut and forced her breathing to remain calm. She’d stopped off at the admin office on her way out and told the secretary that she couldn’t carry on teaching Rafiq.

Purely logistical reasons, she said. It was just becoming too difficult to fit him into her schedule. She’d sort out a replacement tutor straight away.

Nobody asked any questions. Her explanation was totally plausible.

She joined a busy motorway and slipped into the line of cars speeding past. Glancing upwards for a moment, she saw the sky stretching out in every direction above her. What was it Rafiq had said? The sky is the same for everybody. Looking away from the grey, sodden heaviness, she sighed and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Actually Rafiq, she thought to herself, I think that’s one thing about which you’re wrong. My sky is probably quite different from yours.

She put her foot down on the accelerator and drove home in silence.

© Dariush Alavi 2007