A ball bounced into my field of vision and startled me out of my reverie. I dashed towards it to block the attacker and allow someone else to clear the ball. Defence was a safe position because I didn’t have to handle the ball, all I did was get in the way of the others who were trying to reach the goal.
The kids ran up and down the beach and as the day wore on Sumana dutifully doled out Sunkist and KDD juice boxes while the mothers sat under the coverage of the patio. They dropped one or two sugar cubes and mai ligah, sweetened palm water, into their tiny glass stikanat brimming with tea. They gossiped about their week and periodically approached the water with trousers pulled up to their knees to cool off from the late afternoon sun.
After one team or another had racked up enough points we threw off our shirts and ran into the water. Thick clumps of seaweed collected around the shore and I dodged trails of detritus that swirled around my body. Thick little curlicues of hair jutting from teenage boy armpits bobbed in and out of the water.
A couple boys swiped sugar cubes from the khalaat’s crumb covered tea set and sucked on them noisily. They shoved me towards the outdoor showers to test out the temperature and I swiftly rubbed soap on my face, squinting as though the suds stung my eyes. A pretence to try to catch more exposed skin. We didn’t have much time before the tepid water became scalding as it often did in spring and summer so they threw their shoulders back against the water, body hair matted down by rivulets of water and recapped their exploits. A mess of feet slapped against the ceramic and skidded out of the shower, leaving the full brunt of the scalding water to rush onto my back.
Laila sat on the patio sipping a mug of chai haleeb, tea sweetened with condensed milk, her drying hair wrapped in a cloth ghutra belonging to one of her male cousins. I slid the glass sliding door shut, muffling the din of eight kids scrambling around their video games. Citronella candles were lit along the patio’s perimeter. Their flames reflected against the glass and cast rhythmic shadows on sheets hanging from the clothes line.
She looked up at me.
‘Let’s make a play. We can show it to Baba tomorrow when he picks us up.’
I glowed with possible stories, grabbed a sheet from the laundry line, wrapped it around my waist, and twirled.
‘I get to be Aurora, Snow White and Cinderella!’
‘OK so who’s left for me?’
‘The fairies and the prince, all of the movies have a prince.’
‘Fairies sound boring, I’ll be the prince!’
Our rehearsal drew Khalti Haifa and a few of her sisters who took up residence on plastic chairs, their damp faces shone with the day’s fading heat. Laila and I pulled three toddlers out of their mothers’ laps to stand in for the fairies. I ushered Sumana over from the wings. Their gossip hummed.
With my blanket dress hitched under my armpits, I gathered the fairies around me.
‘OK, Sumana you’re the evil Maleficient and she curses me so you have to make me sleep, and then I’ll wake with true love’s kiss.’
I quoted the film, matched the rhythm of the character’s lines. Sumana curled back her lips with an evil witch sneer, and the fairies stared at me, dribbles of saliva and crumbled Digestive cookies dotted their cheeks.
‘But you have to yell, okay?’
‘Habibi Barraki, I not yelling,’ she said, her accent inflected the syllables with the musicality of her mother tongue.
‘You have to,’ I urged, ‘pretend we did something bad. You’re evil, OK?’
Sumana stroked my hair and hitched my dress up to my shoulders like a cape, her bemused grin crept over a feigned look of suffering.
‘OK I do like this,’ she twisted her eyes around and hissed.
Laila had pulled a scabbard off the living room wall and carefully unsheathed the curved saif from its velvety case. The blade was dull but its metal reflected the candlelight with each stroke that Laila took, she fought shadows that writhed across the sand. Our evil queen smiled brightly at us, transformed into a radiant queen of light.
‘Inzain Barrak, OK, let’s practice the kiss.’
I reluctantly followed her behind some flapping laundry. I tugged the sheet tighter around my waist and Laila drew me towards her gallantly. My eyes gaped open and she ducked her head towards mine. I whisked away from her to the other side of the sheet, worried that the light would cast us in shadow theatre. But the stars were winking, the aunts were gossiping, and we were invisible. I knelt in front of Laila, squeezed my hands around damp sand and met her dry lips with mine.
The next morning we sat out two chairs of honour for Khalti Haifa and Ami Fahad. I slipped a black abbaya over my head. I rummaged through Mama Badriya’s cupboard looking for the perfect cape of chiffon. There were everyday abbat, worn and dusty along the hem, and abbat that slipped through my fingers, light and coarse fabric that made my back tingle when I touched it, as if I was handling dry chalk.
I finally found one that was lined with rhinestones on the bottom. Laila was much more utilitarian about it. She came out from behind the flapping clothesline wearing my white dishdasha. I caught Khalti Haifa flick a wrist at Ami Fahad’s terse glare. His shadow crept over me like Maleficent’s forest of thorns. Khalti Haifa edged forward, past the shadow, her beaming demeanour shielding against Ami’s stance.
Laila hummed Snow White’s lilting ‘Someday my prince will come’ and I sang with all my heart, ‘Away to his castle we’ll go, to be happy forever I know!’
The muezzin from the mosque down the road signalled the call to prayer. I tensed. You weren’t supposed to play music, let alone sing, during the athan. But chalet wasn’t quite Kuwait. You could get away with a bit more out here on the southern coastline. Khalti Haifa rocked her head in tune with our song, and I commandeered our stage.
‘Khalas, it’s finished,’ Laila whispered loudly.
Ami Fahad stumbled over the audience of stuffed animals who occupied the row behind him, and tugged his wife into the hallway.
The door was closed, but we could still hear a heated discussion,
‘Hatha mushkilla! This is big problem. Ishloon? How can you let this happen?’
‘Shino il muskilla? What’s the problem?’
‘Boys can play girls. Girls can play boys? What are we teaching them?’
‘We were with them all night when they practiced. They worked hard. They make something they’re proud-’
‘I don’t care.’
Ami continued his tirade.
‘We have to tell his parents this business.’
‘No, no need to tell them anything. Khalas, we won’t bring him to chalet anymore.’
Laila peeled off her costume and rolled her eyes at me. I looked away. Sumana rubbed my back reassuringly and helped me gather our toy audience and return them to their bin in the kids’ room.
I crossed the gravel driveway alone on my way back to the car. The heavy feeling that had sunk into my gut when we bowed in front of ami and khalti spread across my body.