Fawzia studied Social Anthropology, drawn to the 'poetics and the politics of writing culture' (someone else said that). She is now unsure about the politics but still likes to play with the poetics, reveling in how the rendering of experience turns it into something else. While wary of the full stop, she has a particular fondness of the question mark.
On the night our house burnt down
On the night that our house burnt down, I asked my mother if she could give me a necklace. What kind of necklace, she wanted to know. She was great like that. Just responding to questions in a calm and concerned manner, never commenting on their inappropriate or obscure timing, just wanting the details. She always wanted the details. Do you take 2%, fat free or full fat milk? Colombian, Costa Rican or that unpronounceable Ethiopian coffee? Demerara, brown or white sugar? Actually we don’t have demerara, I just like saying the word.
I want a vintage necklace.
I’m sure your sister can get you one of those. She loves those exorbitantly overpriced flea markets.
I don’t want an exorbitantly overpriced flea market necklace that was made to look like it was personally bequeathed to me from one of the Brontës but was actually made by some children in a factory in China. I want a necklace that comes from you, from us, from the family. I want a necklace that was given to you by your Grandmother and which had been given to her - during a clandestine meeting in some deep green and mysterious garden - by her inappropriate suitor who didn’t come from a respectable family but who was the man she really should have married because she was awfully in love with him and because the man she did marry wore sandals with socks and always suffered from sunburn even in the winter. I want it to be a kind of magical family heirloom that offers protection so that I am forced to check for it before I leave the house, like I’m looking for my keys or something else that’s vital like a fruit and nut bar for the inside pocket of my handbag.
My mother is silent. I can see the reflection of the flames flickering in her eyes. She looks really good in the glow of the fire. I think it’s because she’s been running and her cheeks are all flushed and her scarf has come loose in the kind of bohemian chic I’m a Parisian lady and my clothes sweep over me sort of way. I want to tell her she looks good. Something like orange is a great colour on you mum or in this candle light you don’t have any wrinkles at all, only that would be inappropriate. Because it’s not candle light. It’s the flame of all our possessions, going up in smoke because someone tried to bake a frozen pizza in a cardboard box. I think it’s important to mention at this point that it was a chicken tikka pizza. Which I would never eat. Not only because I think chicken tikka is an abomination (do you want a curry or do you want a pizza? Make up your fucking mind) but because I am a mostly vegetarian.
My brother says that’s not the point. He says I put the pizza in the oven with the box and I burnt down the house. But it was not my pizza and I don’t even eat frozen pizza because it tastes like cardboard even when people do remove the cardboard and I think that’s the point and I think if I ever have enough money to see a therapist again I will tell them that is the point.
My mother is still silent.
Mum? The necklace? It’s really important.
Okay. But I don’t have one. I have a broach in the shape of a fish from your Great Aunt Elspeth but I’m guessing it’s melted by now. Plus you don’t like fish. Except tuna mayonnaise fish. And no one even knows what they look like because they come from a can.
My mother is super calm. She even has this slightly crazed little smile on her face. At first I thought maybe she was smiling because we had some kind of wicked insurance scheme and could buy everything back again, only better, but then I remembered that my dad doesn’t believe in insurance and then I remembered that my mum’s just a tiny bit nuts.
Like in a good way. In a nuts are nutritious kind of way.
Aren’t you going to ask me why I want a necklace?
She takes a few steps back from where we are standing. It’s getting a bit too hot. Not surprising really, as the firefighters still have their work cut out for them. It’s a big house. With lots of rubbish in it. I bet the fire just loved engulfing all our crap. All those boxes of sci-fi books, all those IKEA pieces we never actually assembled because we all can’t follow instructions, all those towels my parents keep in the linen cupboard for the fancy guests, all those files and files of papers my mother has in her office which cover the details of all her children like we’re under some investigation or something and our first grade reports might be of use in discovering why we ran away to join that cult. All that crap. But not a single magical family heirloom necklace.
So why a necklace dear?
She has the tired voice. The I’m going to play along with your eccentricities because I am your mother and I promised to love you regardless of the fact that I find you a little strange and therefore I will ask you the question you want me to ask you not because I am remotely interested but because have I mentioned that I love you regardless of you being strange? voice. My favourite.
I try to explain to her the eureka moment which revealed to me the importance of the necklace. I was in my room, reading a summary of a book a friend had lent me about neoliberalism and which I didn’t really like or understand but felt I had to pretend to like and understand so was reading the summary so that I could say something clever like don’t you think he could have expanded upon the ways in which Marx's concept of primitive accumulation is highly pertinent to the neo-liberal era of capitalism? Only I never got that far, because my brother screamed out from the other side of the house (the nice side, with the high ceilings) ‘we have to evacuate the house, it’s on fire!’
Funny that, I thought I smelt something a bit smoky.
Then my mother’s voice, I’m just about to put the chicken in dear, what’s that?
THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE, GET YOUR PASSPORT, I’M GOING TO GET BABA. ZINNY – GET THE CAT, I’VE GOT ROUGH AND READY.
I should probably mention at this point that Rough and Ready are the names of my dogs. And I didn’t name them. Because even though I put pizza in a cardboard box inside the oven I’m not a complete moron.
Mum again. Oh okay, is that Mo? I didn’t know you were home. I didn’t hear you. Should I put the chicken in the fridge then?
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE CHICKEN MUM. THERE’S A FUCKING FIRE SPREADING FROM BABA’S SIDE OF THE HOUSE. WE HAVE TO GET OUT. CAN’T YOU SMELL THE SMOKE?
Yes, but I thought it was the neighbours.
I knew it was serious because my brother never swears at mum. I also knew it was serious because I could not only smell, but see the smoke.
My brother raced past my room and reminded me about the passport (And the cat. Who was calmly snuggled up sleeping on my bed. Typical). Then he said ‘and anything else that you think is important.’
Anything else that you think is important. Crikey.
I did a rapid scan of my room. Framed photographs with my best friend from high school. Nah, not sure I like her anymore. Collection of favourite books. Too many plus could just re-order from Amazon. Clothes. How shallow would it be if I emerged with my favourite skirt? I’ve got to have more personality than that… Erm. An old journal? That can happily burn. My laptop? Too heavy plus everything is backed up on Dropbox. Jewellery? Everything I own is plastic and half of it was bought at discount from the pharmacy.
That’s when it hit me. I need to inherit a necklace. With just the right amount of sentiment and history to infuse it with supernatural powers. So that I can take on the world in the spirit of Great Grandmother Beatrice or Great Aunt Molly or something like that (I’ll get their name right once I get their necklace, promise).
Mum, do you remember that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio about people who perform corporate espionage using an experimental military technology to infiltrate the subconscious of their targets and extract information while experiencing shared dreaming?
No. I like Leonardo DiCaprio. He was very good in Catch me if you Can. I don’t find him very good looking though. Weak chin.
Yeah but you never saw the film?
Yes I saw Catch me if you Can. It’s very good, you should really watch it.
Yeah I know but I’m talking about Inception. In the movie, they have these things called totems which they use to identify what is reality and what is in another persons’ dream. And the totems, they like, generally have symbolic importance to someone, like maybe they belonged to someone you loved once and have a memory that means something to you. So, if you were one of these people from Inception and your house was burning down because someone accidentally cooked the pizza in the oven with the box, well the first thing you’d take when you leave the house would be your totem. You know, because it’s got these special powers. And it’s yours.
So you want a necklace to be your totem?
A family heirloom necklace Mum!
But this is real sweetie. Not someone’s dream.
I know. But sometimes you can’t tell.