The Ghūl


It was funny to think that Samir used to be excited by the seagulls squawking and squalling above him. As he was coming back from school, with his little legs running up the redbrick stairway of the housing block, they were swirling high in their large number. The fact that they had become a regular occurrence, thus losing their novelty, may have been the reason. But he knew that this wasn't the full story. Recently he had noticed in himself an indifference to most things and it left him feeling uneasy.

When living in the seaside town he found the world outside, school or whatever was going on around him far too confusing; so much so he didn't want to be a part of it. He was perceived to be an odd, dark-skinned boy from a foreign country that everyone had difficulty pronouncing. But now it was as if a shield had come down and he didn't care anymore. And it seemed no one cared about him. Even when someone asked what was going on he confessed he didn't have a clue. However, as soon as his mother's hand twisted the key in the lock, Samir rushed straight into the comfort of the living-room. It seemed preferable for him, and everyone else, to withdraw to the sanctity of this room, as it was here where he could spend his most pleasurable moments in a half-decorated playground for his imagination, to boot with peeling wallpaper and cracks in the walls. Here even the electric sockets, unhinged from the skirting and still held up by their wires, could turn into strange tentacled reptilian creatures or disproportionate strange fruit on twisted trees.

 “Sami!” a gruff voice bellowed from the paper-thin walls of the adjacent room. “Mama, tell him to be quiet”. 

A crooked smirk appeared on his moon-face. He was in the process of drawing and colouring in another of his pictures. An enormous leviathan had risen above the water to capture a shark in its jaws, piercing it with its sharp teeth. Apart from the red pen marks of blood, the whole artwork incorporated an intense use of blue and black, which seemed to complement the vast stretch of navy blue patterned carpet he was drawing on, to the extent that the edges of the paper and the carpet had almost become seamless. However, Samir noisily screeched and snarled while immersing himself in his creation. 

 “Mama!” 

The voice belonged to his brother Youssef. He was sitting in the dining room still in his ill-fitting school uniform, staring at his textbooks spread out on the table, impatient to read. Their mother was in the kitchen amidst the pots and pans bubbling and hissing on the stove. Out of stress she would often slice her black hair from her forehead with the back of her arm.

“Tell Youssi to be quiet!” 

“Samir, hush now”, she shouted, hoping to quickly pacify the situation. 

“Yeah Sami, shut up!” 

“No. You shut up you Goof!”

You’re a Goof, not me!”

Yet, before another uncomfortable slanging match between the children continued, a loud scream came from upstairs. To Samir it was like the smashing of glass, or an alarm bell being set off. He squeezed the pen in his hand tightly. He heard his mother drop the saucepan lid. She muttered some incoherent words before running out and up the stairs.

It screamed again. The thudding of her steps vibrated throughout the room. Samir looked up as his eyes traced the movement through the living-room walls and ceiling. He could sense her running along the corridor, opening the door, and entering the bedroom above. She shouted panicked concerns whilst the deep screaming, accompanied by violent banging, intensified to a fevered shrill. Now that it was happening, Samir clung desperate to the thought that this was how it usually begun. And yet the savage ferocity of these episodes always caught him by surprise.

*

He was standing in the hallway outside the bedroom. He could hear his mother talking inside. 

“It is nothing but trouble”, she spoke with an air of defiance. 

“He should be alright now. The medication is working just as it should. Signs of seizures seem to be nil.”

Samir plucked up the courage to move forward. The bedroom door was open. He could see his mother standing next to a thin, brown, bespectacled GP. The doctor was politely attending to the creature lying in the bed. 

“He has always been like this – in bed, not moving…”  

“Yes, in an obtunded state. I know.”

The evening twilight eased its way through the net-curtained window. The moon’s eye was wide, peering over the scene with its usual bright gleam – although storm clouds were fast gathering. His mother fixed in her helplessness looked as apposite as the other commonplace furnishings in the room.

Samir studied the face lying on the pillow. It was gaunt, lifeless. Its eyes had hollowed into its skull, its cheeks a withered, crevassed landscape of skin. He watched the GP busily conduct some last minute checks; pulling at its eyelids, and pressing two fingers on its temple, neck and wrist. 

Unable to stare at it for too long, the boy’s eyes quickly diverted to the small but beautiful octagonal topped, boxwood table tucked away in the corner of the room. The intricate inlaid bone and ivory flower patterns gave the lone bible sitting on top a sense of prominence. Similarly, hanging above the mantelpiece, the large silver and copper frame that surrounded the print of Jesus created an incongruous effect. Jesus was holding his hands open to whoever wanted comforting. The colours were harsh and gaudy and the painting more cartoon than finely done, but the image within the frame was elevated to certain precedency. To Samir it was strangely reassuring. 

Once the doctor was done, his mother led him out of the room and down the stairs. 

“We’ve been given right to stay here. But what good is it? We get letters through the door saying they do not want immigration… Some think we have come to better ourselves and only take from this country. But it is not true. If you want to see it – proof – it is up there in the attic. We have everything there.” 

She pointed upstairs to where Samir was sneakily watching them. At that exact moment the boy allowed his thoughts to wander. His attention was somewhere behind him, along the dim lit hallway.

“He did this himself” she murmured. “Since we came here he works in this cheap garage all day. Then, he thinks he wants to clean up the place – do good by getting a broom and sweeping up the hallways and stairs…” She paused. “But they do not care? They do not help?”

Waiting by the front door, Samir’s mother patiently stood by the doctor while he put his overcoat on.

“Some gang of boys come to him… Now he is like this - .” She paused. “Why did they do this to him?”

She searched the doctor’s face for any signs of sympathy.

 “What am I to do?”

The GP, doing his best to keep things positive, smiled cheerfully. Then, as he stood outside the front door, he turned to her directly. 

“We could get you some help?”

As if floating though space Samir moved to a certain point along the hallway, under the closed attic door. He looked contemplative as he stared at the small, square-shaped hatch. His eyes were wide and expectant, excited by the thought that somewhere up there, behind the closed entry, there was something waiting to be discovered.

Yet, once the front door closed a grave silence channelled through the hallway and into the rest of the house. Like Scheherazade uplifting herself before performing her story to King Shahryar, Samir’s mother turned and slowly walked up the stairs, masked by the staircase shadows cast along the walls. 

Concealing himself in his and Youssef’s bedroom, he watched her through a small chink in the doorway. His mother entered the creature’s room where she remained for several minutes until she left, closing the door quietly behind her. By the door frame she felt for a soft spot on the wall where a part of the wallpaper could be drawn back to reveal a small hole in the broken plaster. She then stuck her hand in the hole, reached around some exposed metal piping and retrieved a big, cast iron, skeleton key. With it she locked the bedroom door, and then put it back where it was stored. Samir watched as she pulled back her shirt sleeve to reveal two large, discoloured bruises on her wrist and arm. When she rubbed her shoulder under her collar, she revealed more misshapen bruising that ran the whole circumference of her neck. 

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