Amaal turns to the crossword page in the newspaper; folding it into a neat half, then quarter, she props it against her schoolbag which is resting on her knees. The crispness of the page with its orderly grid of squares calms her. The coach travels south, lanes of traffic and blue motorway signs blurring by. Warm summer air rushes in through the open window filling her nostrils with diesel fumes.
Pencil in hand, she scans the clues. She is just learning the double-speak of the cryptic crossword. The hidden meanings and wordplays appeal to her; nothing is as it seems. She can’t finish them yet, but she’s getting better. Eight is her personal best. There are no newspapers in her house – it isn’t that kind of home – but Miss Peters in the library saves her the school’s copy from the previous day. Her best friend (or ex-best friend now) Jamilah didn’t get it. ‘We have enough to learn, Amaal!’ she had said. But it’s her own secret world that she can escape to. She likes to do the crossword in bed, letting her mind spool over the clues until her eyes are heavy. This is how she had come to hear her parents’ whispered conversations late at night, the urgency in their voices alerting her. The usual worries about money, the future, family back home and then something new: snippets about arrangements, and it being ‘far too late already’, and honour being at stake… Eventually tiredness would overtake her and she would fall asleep, but it had left her with a creeping sense of unease all summer term.
Four across is easy: Sweet Stall (5). A double definition. The short ones nearly always are. Fudge. She writes it in quickly, feeling hungry at the thought. Maybe she’d get some chocolate at the airport. She should have plenty of time; her flight departs at noon from Birmingham. The coach will take her all the way to the airport and her aunt will meet her at the other end in Mogadishu. “You’re old enough to go by yourself, nearly 12 now, a sensible girl”, her mother told her. Besides, there was no other choice; her father had to work, her mother couldn’t leave the country – she still had no passport – and there was no money for a second ticket anyway.
All her mother had talked about for the past few months was the trip to Somalia. Amaal was to stay with her aunt, who, according to her mother, made the best sambusas and chai. If she was good, she would get a new set of bangles.
This was unusual. Her mother wasn’t one to be profligate; she worried constantly about money and the lack of it. It niggled away at Amaal, like the first twinge of a toothache. Her mother had been uncharacteristically teary when she saw her to the coach station this morning, pressing a parcel of halwa into her hands as she boarded, wrapped first in a double layer of greaseproof paper, then tin foil. “Save the paper, Amaal, fold it up nicely”; she instructed automatically.
When she had told her friends at school of her upcoming trip, they were wildly jealous. Allowed to travel by herself, escape her parents for a whole month, and somewhere as exotic sounding as Somalia… most of her friends had never been outside of Birmingham. They dizzied her with questions: what were her cousins like, what kind of food would she eat, did they have chicken shops there? Everyone, that is, apart from Jamilah; she had gone quiet and not asked her a single thing.
Her silence stung. Jamilah had been back to Somalia with her own mother over the Easter break and Amaal had been excited for her. Ever since she had come back from her trip there had been a distance between them. For a long time, Amaal wondered what she might have done or said to upset her. Eventually she’d lost gotten sick of asking her if she was ok. Fine then, if Jamilah didn’t want to be friends anymore and just stay at home and be boring, that was fine with Amaal. Jamilah had been off school a lot recently with vague explanations so they saw less of each other anyway.
One down: Key for a jailbreak? (6). She chews the end of the pencil stub absent- mindedly, the familiar taste of wood mixed with bitter graphite strangely soothing. Not an anagram. Nothing hidden in the clue. What could it be? Key, key… Escape, that’s it! A computer key, and another word for a jailbreak! With an inward smile of satisfaction, she neatly fills in the letters in deliberate, triumphal capitals.
Amaal needs to pee. It’s nerves, it always makes her panic about needing a toilet. She would be at the airport shortly, but she didn’t think she could wait. Bringing her bag with her (one of her mother’s many strict instructions), she makes her way down the aisle to the coach’s toilet in the stairwell. Not too dirty, thankfully. Sitting on the toilet in the tiny cubicle, her knees are almost touching the back of the toilet door. A poster is inches from her face; a girl dressed in a grey school uniform with police tape around her stares back. There is a caption underneath: Female Genital Mutilation is child abuse. If you think a child is at risk, call… and then a phone number.
Amaal eyes the poster for a long time, seeing but not seeing. The serpent which has sat heavy in her guts for the past few months slowly begins to uncoil. Everything crowds into her mind at once– the whispered conversations, the trip, Jamilah – they all rearrange themselves in her head, falling into place.
Su Yin Yap is a Spread the Word London Writers’ Awards Awardee 2019. She has previously had work published in Popshot Quarterly, Solstice Shorts, Flash Fiction Festival Anthology Three, as well as in online journals.