The crumbling concrete wall was only a few inches wide. Without grace but with great enthusiasm, she mounted it. The drop down the other side was unforgiving. It was a pit of no return, filled with cigarette butts and a single sheet of lined white paper with her handwriting on it. It was her plan for her motivation letter for university that had flown from beneath her hot tea cup as she lifted it to her thirsty lips to drink earlier that day. But now she was fuelled by panic, not hot tea, a mild but constant feeling of shame for leaving things so late, and alcohol. Her tipple of choice was dark rum and coke, and she’d had plenty, despite her guests drinking Yellow Label Lipton black tea with fresh lemon and mint from Wast al Balad, downtown. They offered Margaux, whom they barely knew, company, moral support, and practical, hands-on assistance in dealing with the situation.
Charlie, an indecisive Scottish girl who had come to view the apartment the week before, was much taller than Margaux. Her Dutch genes at least a few sizes bigger than Margaux’s French ones. When they hugged hello or goodbye, or just companionably in the joyful moments of their developing friendship, Charlie would lean down and put her arms right around Margaux’s narrow, plain T-shirted shoulders. At first, when the two met, there was some hesitation from both sides. Admittedly, Margaux was tired from her recent trip around Europe, and Charlie had just returned from a two-day epic to the south of Jordan with some friends, and, as usual, she lacked sleep. Perhaps it was this that led them to cross their legs in opposite directions and sit with their backs positioned, just marginally, closer than normal for a meeting of two people who had recently met but got on well. As they sipped the mango juice she had brought as an offering, Charlie imagined herself inside the glass, had it contained an ice cube. She envisaged herself submerged in the thick, sticky liquid and the sensation of the temperature changing within it as the ice cube melted and dispersed as cold water around her. She swirled her juice before drinking the last of it. She was getting used to the dry heat. Amman was becoming her new home.
Charlie had, in the past, been robbed of valuable possessions while travelling and was sympathetic to Margaux’s computer-less situation. She couldn’t let her apply for a master's on her mobile phone. Following on from sipping the sweet sap, Charlie handed over her own modern machine without realising the problems it would present.
1. Microsoft Word didn’t work
2. The keyboard was ‘stupid and English’ (not French – no accents - hard to navigate)
3. She hadn’t brought her charger
After the handover of technology, Charlie climbed the flimsy throw-down ladder from the balcony, up the side of the apartment wall, and onto the rooftop. An afternoon spent in the shade of the building would not have been satisfactory. She followed the light wherever she went. Wherever she saw it, no matter how distant, she would go. Fresh, pale London winter skin ready to absorb what the Jordanian sun had to offer. Though it was the same sun, really. Wasn’t it?
When she reached the roof, it met her thoroughly abandoned. Bits of wood of various shapes and sizes with nails sticking jutting out threateningly, metal doors that led from nowhere to nowhere else, shards of broken glass - clear, brown, green and everything in between, assorted rubbish not worth wasting time on describing, and a signal tower.
After a quick explore, navigating her way over the green netting, avoiding the sharp edges of the debris, she lay on the concrete below, propping her head on her favourite blue and white patterned polyester scarf that would remain in her possession for years to come. She delighted in these moments of stolen freedom, having left work early and, for the first time outside of her own home in the city, removed her jumper. Nobody was around to see, and her Dutch skin drank in the warmth, freckling lightly during the hour or so she spent there alone.
Immediately following the literal downfall of her letter of motivation, and motivation itself, Margaux also made her way onto the roof. Stirring Charlie from her sunshine-fuelled, meditative state, Margaux skipped past. A natural athlete, despite her limited height, she focused on the tower ahead and flew up the ladder with the ease of a light breeze. Without sound. Her silhouetted figure, black, except for her dirty blonde hair illuminated in the afternoon sun, cast shadows on the dusty surface of the roof. And the city, colourless concrete buildings on hills all around us. Home-made kites flashes of colour, flown by invisible children down below in distant, deep alleys just added to what she perceived in her immediate surroundings. Margaux stuck out on the rusty frame, like the nails in the wood strewn across the roof, above the citadel. And the bright blue sky, full of hope, served as the perfect contrast to what she would feel later that evening.
Charlie returned to the flat with Mohammad - her language partner - a couple of hours later. Margaux opened the door and greeted them both politely enough but with the familiarity of a friend who doesn’t have to say anything to be understood, before immediately disappearing into her bedroom. ‘Are you ok?’ Charlie asked, concerned. ‘No’, said Margaux. So devoid of everything, the muscles in her face stood still. She disappeared, a dark, pregnant cloud, into the kitchen to boil some water. Hesitantly, Charlie followed, signalling for Mohammad to hang back temporarily while she worked out what was going on. In response to her questioning eyes, Margaux answered with words. ‘Well, you know, Microsoft Word wasn’t working… so I wrote my statement in the body of an email… and when I went to save it…’, she paused, ‘it crashed.’
It was with this crash that Margaux fell too. ‘It’s due at noon’, she explained, meaning midnight. She was tired, and her English was diminishing as the night fell darker. It was already 10 pm, and she was vacant by then. Losing her handwritten draft down the side of the building had only been one of two events that had drained her of hope that day. The product of her afternoon on the balcony, which followed at least a week of procrastination, was gone. This setback felt insurmountable.
Following on from countless, rushed, warm rum and cokes (who had time for ice?), Margaux mounted the thin, crumbling brick wall which rimmed the balcony. Mohammad went to her, a brotherly figure in the darkness. She just clung to the wall, a child again, her comfort blanket in hand still. He didn’t want to condescend but sunk down to her level. He went from brother to ‘swimming teacher’ with no hint of humour or irony. He acted as if all that should have been was. But Charlie could see that he was scared. Margaux had almost jumped clear of the wall, and could too easily have landed in amongst the cigarette butts and her handwritten paper down below. He held her, helping her so she would lie down along the wall properly, supporting her in her place and guiding her wild, flailing arms until she was doing the front crawl. Aware of the drop beside them and of her carelessness, he mouthed to Charlie, ‘we can’t leave her’. They had to stay. He looked down at her, this time with pity. She was lying on the wall. She needed their kindness, their help, and for them not to leave her alone with herself.
Charlie woke in the morning to the sound of the harsh mobile phone alarm which brought back memories she’d rather forget. She was fully clothed in jeans and a jumper. Her feet in long, black and white spotty socks. She was a sock-loser. Not used to matching. Sometimes even went barefoot by necessity. These were far from the holy trainer socks that let her thick toenails wear down the threads, and they restricted the flow of blood to her toes. A sharp red rim line formed around each of her calves, visible only when she pulled the socks down. Margaux was beside her, in short pyjama bottoms and a thin white top, her nipples protruding in the cool morning darkness. On the other side, Mohammad lay still, obscured by a surprisingly thick blanket, considering the relative morning heat. But when he emerged, they both - Margaux and Charlie - separately saw that his thick chest hair defiantly refused to be bound by his vest top. Unsurprised by the oddity of the situation, Charlie slipped out of bed, almost as if to sneak out from a one-night stand. Except this was different. Nothing had happened. Not really. Not like that. But she still didn’t feel quite right about waking up in bed with the two of them, Margaux and Mohammed. And about this being the first night she had spent with either of them.