Tiny Flat

by Ana Abdullah - July 19, 2018

— Summary: She didn’t care about her own messy life, what more of a little orphan. Besides, the girl was staying in her tiny flat for just a few days. Nothing would change, right? —

Everyone was avoiding the little girl. She slouched in a corner like a used doll, short legs stretched out on the marbled floor. A plate of white rice and a cup of water were left untouched beside her. While she slept, relatives feasted on their fluffy yellow briyani, heavy with gravy.

Hajar had never met the child’s mother, a distant cousin of hers, buried just two hours ago. Uncle Imran said the young mother died of a broken heart. Her funeral rites were done to a minimal on his massive Persian rug. It was a highly regarded piece among the mourners now.

"Take the child home with you," remarked Uncle Imran. "Just for a few weeks. She has no one right now. Her father is a bloody drunkard. You understand, Hajar? You live in your flat alone. Still unemployed? Good, plenty of time to look after her. The family will figure out something for her."

He concluded with a long exhale of pungent tobacco smoke.

It stung her.

It also embarrassed her.

The regular guests to Hajar’s two-room flat were either a family of roaches or the occasional flutter of moths. Now, with another person beside her, the discarded snack wrappers, crusty cup noodles and other junk filling up her tiny flat made it no different from a dumping ground.

“Let me get them out of the way.” She shoved them aside. A desperate path was created for her human guest.

The small girl tiptoed into the living room, careful to avoid a high pile of faded newspapers and stained clothes. Having found a safe spot, she slipped off her sneakers, lining them beside her feet. She didn’t remove her socks. Instead she stood still, gripping her tattered backpack against her chest.

“It’s only for a few weeks. When Grandpa Imran comes, you can sleep at a better place,” assured Hajar.

"Where can I do my Salaah?" It was a soft, frightened voice.

Hajar stopped in the midst of clearing the torn tabloids from her sofa. Salaah, the five daily prayers she had deliberately missed, a sacred worship to one's Creator should be done in a clean space. Her flat wasn’t one.

“Maybe you can do it tomorrow,” suggested Hajar. “Because right now - ”

A cockroach scurried between them, surprising her. Instincts made her grab it but it flew towards the girl. In a panic, the child rushed to get away, only to crash into a pile of unknown rubbish, falling to her side, elbow hitting hard on the dirty floor. With the chaos, Mr. Roach hid himself again, returning to his family.

“Are you OK?” Hajar hurried to her.

"I’m not going to cry," replied the little one. She struggled to get up amidst the rubbish. Her lips tightened as she rubbed her elbow.

Hajar knelt down. She wiped off the soft curls from her forehead. The child reminded her of Sayang, a beloved kitten she once had. The soft cotton ball of life was always mewling for her attention. This soft one, however, was trying her best to stay silent in pain. Hajar rubbed the raw elbow gently.

"I never knew your name, sayang," said Hajar.

"Latifah." Big moist eyes looked up at her.

“I’m Aunty Hajar.” She held out her hand.

Her tiny fingers gripped her tight.

Her flat space was tight, comprising of only a living room, a kitchen with a toilet and a bedroom. Being small meant it was easily cluttered so it required immediate cleaning. Like now.

Her living room was rid of its landfill of pests and unknowns. Now, her clean sofa became its centre piece accompanied by a shiny wooden coffee table. Fresh green curtains adorned her windows too. They fluttered shyly each time a gentle wind blew. Outside the flat, several bags of trash lined up on the common corridor. They were ready to be sentenced to the nearest disposal venue.

This new leash of life existed because little Latifah despised cockroaches.

“Let me help you with that,” offered Hajar, reaching out for the empty box on top of her fridge.

“Thank you.” Latifah smiled, throwing it into the new trash bag. It was filling up quickly.

Her kitchen was almost done, leaving only the cabinets. The toilet was the first to be scrubbed clean of black mold and brown stains. Afterward were the kitchen sink and the stove. They now gleamed proudly, ready to serve. The floor was then mopped hard until its beige tiles could reflect the sun from the open windows. Finally, a small dining table was wiped down until it was eager for good hearty meals on it.

“We’re done,” announced Latifah, touching her arm gently.

“Good job,” replied Hajar. She heaved the heavy rubbish bag outside, dumping it next to the sentenced row of bags. That was it.

"Can we clean this one now, Aunty?"

Nothing else was left to be cleaned except -

A doorknob had turned.

A doorknob to the only bedroom in her tiny flat.

Immediately, Hajar rushed inside. She gripped the small hands, stopping her from opening the door. With too much force, she pulled the door shut. This one should always remain shut. It should never, ever be opened. The fierce thoughts shook her entire being making her grip tighter.

“Aunty Hajar.” A soft voice under her.

She looked down. The small hands had turned pale in her tight grip with the knob. The tiny face stared back at her in surprise then slowly contorted to fear.

Hajar let go instantly.

“Oh, Latifah, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”

“I’m - I’m sorry, Aunty.” The child pulled her hands to her back. She looked away, eyes cast down.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you, Latifah. Let’s leave this room to me. You’ve helped me a lot today.” She embraced her tight.

“I'm OK, Aunty.” She smiled when they parted.

Hajar returned it with her whole heart.

"Come on, why don’t you go shower first? We’ll order something to eat after that. What do you want for dinner?”

“I want fried chicken!”

“Again? It’s been a whole week of that. You'll turn into a chicken soon. Pawk, pawk!”

“No, I won’t!”

“Oh no, what’s that behind your ears? Do I see feathers?”

“No, stop, no!”

Her tiny hands pushed her away.

Hajar laughed.

By night, their laughter always diminished to soft gentle breaths. Both now tired from their hard work, nestling into their makeshift beds in the living room. Latifah on the sofa, already buried deep into colourful cushions, deep into her dreams. On the floor beside her, Hajar was satisfied with simply a woven mat, a pillow and a blanket. The desk fan whirred softly in the background, gently blowing away their weariness.

Last night, Uncle Imran had called. Latifah could only live with her for one more week. She would be taken away to another relative soon. He would be coming over soon. Loved ones never seemed to stay with her long.

“It’s OK,” whispered a little voice.

Hajar turned in surprise. The child had snuggled deeper into the sofa. She was smiling, probably better dreams now. For the past weeks, even when she hadn’t cried since her mother’s passing, the girl had been restless in her sleep, calming down only after Hajar held her hands.

“You’re so much stronger than me,” she whispered.

She hadn't been strong enough to clean her flat. Never strong enough to face her past.

Hajar glanced over to the bedroom. Suddenly, she stood up. In quick, short steps, she reached the forbidden bedroom. For a while she stood in the dark, noticing the odd silence of the night. It had never been this peaceful. She had always fallen asleep with the radio on because her mind and heart were always buzzing with pain.

She reached out for the door.

No, it was the girl. Making her do things. Making her feel again.

Sleep, yes, that was what she needed. Soon enough, she would forget about the bedroom again. Let’s just keep it close. It didn’t matter. The girl would be gone soon. In the morning, everything would be back to normal.

In the morning, Latifah was eager to start on her homework.

“I’m going to cook. Will you be OK doing it by yourself?”

“I’m a big girl, Aunty,” assured Latifah.

Eagerly, she jumped onto the sofa. The coffee table was already filled with her colouring books. Colour pencils laid out in a beautiful tin casing. Blue, pink, indigo, violet, so many colours to be used to her heart’s content.

Hajar had enjoyed her delightful shriek when she bought her the huge set of colours.

“You remember how to sharpen them?” she asked.

“Aunty.” It was a good glare.

Hajar rustled the curls, chuckling at her serious frown.

“Go cook now,” urged Latifah, pushing her away.

“Oi, bossy.”

How long had it been since there was life to this kitchen? Hajar glanced around quickly, remembering again where everything was. She put on the clean pink apron, labeled with the words “Best Mama Ever”. She had found it shoved at the back of her washing machine. Now, bravely, she wore it because there was a little girl that needed to eat well.

It would be a simple meal for simple hearts like theirs. Fried rice sounded good. Different flavours of chicken bits, corns, peas, onion, garlic and a dash of sesame oil put into a wok under a medium fire, stirring them all up with four cups of cooked white rice, then blending them well with salt and pepper until the dish would became delicious bites for them. Hajar turned the stove off.

“Time to eat,” she announced.

There was no reply from her niece.

Hajar rushed to the living room. The front door had been left open for better ventilation as she cooked. Her neighbours weren’t exactly the best sorts. So when she saw the empty sofa with a scatter of colour pencils on the floor, she feared the worst.

“Aunty, I -”

Another door was wide open too.

The bedroom was exactly how Hajar had left it. Its window was still shut, curtains hanging stiffly. Under it was a child’s desk, empty of any stationery. There was a pile of picture books on a neat bed. More books filled up small shelves lining up the walls. On top of them were picture frames of Hajar with other people. In one, she was laughing with a man hugging her tight. In another, she was laughing with a little girl on her back.

But Hajar wasn’t laughing now.

Latifah knew that too. She stood still in the middle of the room, wide-eyed and clutching a red pencil with a broken tip. She trembled in fright, having disobeyed the very rule Hajar had  emphasized for the past weeks.

“It rolled under the door. I didn’t mean to open it.” She held out the red pencil. Her hands were shaking.

“Latifah, what have you done?” A deep voice interrupted them.

Both were surprised to see Uncle Imran.

It was then that Latifah cried.

A long desperate wail that ascended to a heartwrenching note.

It was the saddest sound Hajar had ever heard.

“I must’ve frightened her,” she whispered later.

Hajar sat on the floor, patting gently the small figure on her lap, now quiet and asleep, exhausted from her crying. All that despair bottled up since her mother's death, since living with a messy relative like her, it was too much for her in the end.

“You’ve kept that room shut since they died. I understand if you want me to take her today,” remarked Uncle Imran finally.

Hajar was quiet.

A warm breeze blew into the flat. A soft scent of jasmine attar rode with it, gently embracing everyone, easing their hearts to a quiet beat. A pair of white prayer garments were hung on a wall, one for an adult and another for a child, fluttered gently with the wind. On the floor, two sajadah mats were piled together.

"Your flat looks cleaner now," observed Uncle Imran.

“She needed a place for Salaah,” she replied.

He sighed then placed an unlit cigarette to his lips.

“I know it’d been tough on you, Hajar. I know you’re still coping with your own loss. It has only been two years after all. Like I've told you, her mother’s side is now willing to look after her. I can take her today.”

“Come another day, Uncle.”

He nodded then put away his cigarette. He smiled, offering to carry the child to the sofa.

“No, let her sleep on the bed,” she said.

“We’re in the bedroom. Is it OK, Aunty?”

Both woman and child sat side by side on the bed as night fell. The room was only dimly lit by a desk lamp. The window had been opened but the curtains remained still. The night had finally exhausted of its winds. Now, ghosts of Hajar's past walked freely within the bedroom, ghosts of a lively daughter and a cheeky husband.

“Will I be going with Grandpa Imran tomorrow?”

They were a happy family who was tragically broken. Her husband had come home from work early that day. Her daughter was delighted. Their simple trip to buy an ice-cream cone for everyone became her devastating trip to the Accident & Emergency. She was heartbroken when she received the call.

“You didn’t cry at your mother’s funeral, Latifah.”

She didn’t cry when their bodies were laid to rest into the earth.

“I did cry a lot. I cried until I fell asleep.”

Hajar hugged her tight. They were just simple people with simple hearts. They were the same.

“Do you want to live with me, Latifah?”

They parted gently, looking at each other.

“Can I, really?”

“But my flat is small.”

“That’s OK. I’m small too.”

That was a good place to start. They would start small, building their home together, building their hearts together in this tiny flat.

“I'd like to cry now,” said Hajar.

“I'll be right here, Aunty.”
Ana Says
This one was perhaps a result of me reminiscing my childhood. And also reflecting on where I am now — an ugly mess and lost just like our protagonist. This one felt very dear to me as I wrote it, capturing a tender private part of me, almost like opening up old wounds that needed healing all this while. That needed to be cried upon. I am not very good with my emotions, you see. Thus, I laid it out all here in my stories. Are there such moments for you too?

You Might Also Like

Be The First To Comment