Gypsy Prince / Excerpt / Ibrahim Safie

Part fiction part fact part something else, read an excerpt from Ibrahim Safie's novel Gypsy Prince, a story about a young man falling down the rabbit hole of his childhood

Illustration: Ride & Seek

by Ibrahiem Safie

Culture 4 March 2018

Apparently, I’m a monster. According to the women I’ve been involved with, it’s not that I’m cold, I just don’t seem as invested in them as I should be. I’m more interested, more excited to read a new book, spend time with my friends, research the kind of puppy I want to get (a fox terrier of course), learn how to cook something new or spend time with my family. Relationships were always somewhere at the bottom of my priority list. This, for some reason, attracted them at first. Then they hated me for it.

‘You never yell, you never get excited, you just exist with me. But the second you see your friends you’re like that donkey from Shrek but on crack. I don’t get it. I don’t get you.’

‘Whoever did this to you is a bitch. She ruined you for the rest of us.’

‘I thought it was sexy that you were hiding your passion for me but then I realised you weren’t hiding something that wasn’t there.’

All of them were saying the same thing in different ways. And now when I think about it, I can’t remember which one said what. This sounds terrible I know, but I can’t even match up their names to their faces – Anna, Sarah, Elinor, Yasmine, Kristina – blond, brunette, pink tips, shaved head, nipple piercing, lilac smelling, gluten free, jam making, yoga instructor, lawyer. They all became the same person, the same woman, all of them trying to figure me out and then getting furious at me for not letting them in. I don’t do it on purpose, honestly, I don’t. One of them called me an impossible algebra equation. The truth is she’s right. I don’t even know the fucking answer.

‘It sounds like you have a disease. And it’s from your childhood, I think, it was your childhood that made you like this. Your childhood made you a monster.’

I think it was the yoga instructor who told me that. Whatever my faults are, I found it odd that my childhood would be blamed. I never gave it much thought except to ask myself, was my childhood sad? Was it fucked up? No. Like most people, my self-examination ended there. But then something small, something banal would happen and down you fall through the rabbit hole.

It’s fairly noticeable on other people – when they are staring into nothing in the middle of a dinner party, when their eyes are closed while they listen to a song, when they sigh for no reason. That’s where they are. Down the rabbit hole. Most of the time there’s no choice, it can happen anywhere. A scent, a sound, a face, a word and the memories whiplash leaving you dazed and aching.

When I thought of my childhood in the simplest meaning of the word I thought of nothing else but my bedroom. Over time, nothing had altered the memory of that room. The walls were sugary white with drawings of dogs and horses. My bed had red bars and the sheets, covered with cars and trucks, were never made but sat in a bundle or spilled over the edge. The floor was strewn with books, toys and clothes so that I hardly saw the rug underneath. I also remember my windowsill by my bed. I’d rub my fingers over it, digging my nails into the wood while I watched the sun rise through the leaves of the eucalyptus tree in our front garden.

I’m not that old, in fact some would say that I have my whole life ahead of me. This is true. But throughout puberty and all other nonsense associated with growing up, the memory of that place and time, though still there, was set aside, forgotten momentarily.

All it took was a song and a stupid question at a party for the slithering of memories to begin until it was a full torrent of sounds, smells, images and feelings. If I could go back to my childhood bedroom and explore it now after so many years, I could excavate and separate fact from fiction, imagination from lies all to find a truth. Perhaps that truth or the solution to my algebra equation is a cacophony of thoughts and incidents neatly arranged into a story.

So anyway, here we go. The beginning of this story is actually at the end of it. I was at a party, in London, Kensington, which makes no sense since I lived nowhere near there. It was in one of those homes where the floors were too shiny, the walls were covered with paintings of blotched masses and framed drawings of urban plans. The tables were filled with things that were old but sparkled like a graveyard of souvenirs and the furniture looked too modern or classic to be comfortable. Somehow though, it all looked good.

The parents of our hostess were abroad I was told. Rich people, and she, the girl who lived here, was the beautiful one with the black hair. I never saw her, only a glimpse of a salmon coloured dress escaping around the corner through the crowd when we first walked in.

The voice was high pitched but croaky, the tune sad, futuristic and dramatic all at once. It was a familiar song but the name and lyrics were lost to me.

Everyone was young in the room. They were dressed in clothes not many people could afford and it was imperative to look as though they couldn’t afford them. The result was an effortless, nonchalant attitude to style this timelessly pretentious that I found infuriating and hilarious. They were all drinking, taking photos of each other and then discussing the images at length.

Some I knew, others I recognized from other parties and mutual friends, most I’d never seen before but they were all the same person. The Tatler featured, horse riding, ‘Yah, yah, yah, I’m back from the south of France’ type of person. I knew them well because I’d spent my school years with them. I understood them more than they understood themselves because I’d come from a different country, a different world all together. I had the ability to be like them without ever really belonging to them.

I should have been as ridiculously content as all of them were but I wasn’t. That’s not to say I wasn’t happy, on the contrary. I’d recently completed my Masters degree but I was feeling both happy and confused about the whole matter. There was no relief when I submitted my thesis, but a strange sense of loss. It was a loss of discipline mixed with an anxious feeling of not knowing what was coming next. I knew I’d sound stupid if I’d admitted this to my friends so I kept quiet, smiled and decided to join the party.

We were standing in the corner of the room. I was more interested in listening to the music than to the spit filled words of the girl in front of me. Florence Antonivike was standing two feet away in a green dress that gave her body an unusually square appearance. While awkwardly holding a beer bottle, she wouldn’t stop talking and her brown bob, which looked as though she’d cut herself, was flicked in all directions. One of my closest friends, Phillip Matthews was standing next to me in an electric blue cardigan and a shirt with a red truck on it. Leaning on his shoulder with her neck exposed for him to kiss, was the girl who called herself the love of his life, another close friend of mine Alexandra Lane.

They were completely absorbed with each other as they had been since we all met in our first year at boarding school. Though they have been criticized by many of our friends for being disgustingly too in love and their display of that love too public, Phillip was often enjoying himself far too much to notice and Alexandra, or Lexie, was too elegant to care.

Florence spoke over their playful necking to me of all the issues she had with her thesis which she’d triumphantly completed early. Despite that, she was sad it was all over. I shrugged as if I didn’t understand.

‘You aren’t sad?’ she asked and took a sip from the narrow-necked beer bottle.

The frothy liquid only touched her lips before she pulled it back down.

‘Sad? No,’ I said leaning on the windowsill that I noticed had decorative carvings of vines and leaves.

Outside everything looked dark and humid. There was an incredible heat wave hitting London that no one had expected but welcomed none the less. I looked up at the sky and saw nothing but shapeless clouds like an endless landscape drifting by.

‘It’s all over,’ Florence said looking at Phillip and Lexie who were half listening and half giggling with each other, ‘I mean that’s it isn’t it? It’s finished.’

‘Better things have finished haven’t they? And they were probably sadder but we managed,’ I said, looking out on to the street as half silhouettes walked up the porch steps into the house.

There was one of those iron gated little parks at the end of the narrow street. The trees in the distance and even the grass, from where I squinted, looked navy blue and I assumed that they would feel wet to walk through. The houses on this street were all the same baked orange colour with white-framed windows and columns at the front doors.

There was something else that bothered me about that question. It reminded me of someone. A girl whose face I could still clearly picture. As soon as I saw her, lurking there behind my eyelids I remembered everything.

‘So deep,’ Lexie mocked me as she pushed me from my shoulder and Phillip laughed.

I furrowed my brows at her and noticed the ceiling behind them had the same windowsill design of vines extending out on to the ceiling crevasses.

‘I don’t know what I’m saying really, I’m just talking,’ I said looking back at them, ‘do you know who sings this song?’

The voice was high pitched but croaky, the tune sad, futuristic and dramatic all at once. It was a familiar song but the name and lyrics were lost to me.

‘It’s a bit depressing for a party isn’t it?’ Phillip said, ‘didn’t think you were into this kind of music.’

‘It just sounds familiar that’s all,’ I said.

‘Phillip you know Taim. Underneath that inscrutable exterior is a big fat romantic hidden away under his shirt that he never lets out to play,’ Lexie laughed. It didn’t take much for her to get tipsy.

‘Really?’ Phillip said pretending to hold up an invisible magnifying glass over my face, ‘interesting.’

I laughed and swiped his hand away.

‘Mr observant, a professional people watcher, too smart to share his observations with us.’

‘Sorry to disappoint but I’m really not that interesting,’ I smiled and tapped my knuckles on the windowsill ‘these houses are funny aren’t they? Sort of like a very sensible looking snake. I like them.’

‘I’m surprised either of you noticed Taim, or me,’ Florence said, taking another imaginary sip from her beer.

‘Oh I’m sorry, do you feel like we’re ignoring you?’ Lexie said, pulling Phillip’s arm off from around her waist and gave Florence a hug.

Phillip leaned in toward me.

‘You’d think she’d get used to being ignored by now, bloody annoying. Sorry you’re kind of stuck with her. Lexie really wanted to take her out with us, says all she does is sit in their flat and study.’

‘I’m not bothered,’ I said, ‘I’m fine, be nice to her though. Doesn’t look good that you’re whispering in my ear.’

Phillip coughed into his hand and smiled.

‘Er- Florence? I offer my apologise for our very public and rude fornication but you can excuse us can’t you?’ Phillip said in an animated voice.

‘Why would I want to do that?’ Florence said, with a suppressed smile that twisted her face as though she’d tasted something bitter.

‘Because we are in love, aren’t we?’ Phillip said pulling Lexie closer to him.

‘I can see that,’ Florence said, ‘but haven’t you been together forever? Have you always been like this?’

‘Yup, always,’ Phillip said.

‘No actually Phillip, not always. I’m sure Taim can vouch for that,’ Lexie said.

‘But you were each other’s first loves weren’t you?’ Florence said in a hopeful tone that she tried to hide with another quick sip of her bottle.

Phillip and Lexie looked at each other than at me and laughed.

‘I guess we are,’ Lexie said settling herself on to Phillip while he wrapped his arms around her and shrugged.

‘I suppose so . . .’

‘Suppose so?’ Lexie said.

‘We were young when we got together,’ Phillip said.

‘The two of you were seventeen when you finally got together, after all those stupid games that almost drove me insane,’ I said, followed by their laughter.

‘That is very young seventeen . . . what about you Taim how old were you when you first fell in love?’ Florence turned and asked me in the same way a dentist would ask his patient if he’d been flossing since his last visit.

‘I er-’

I had nothing to say, not even a joke. My fingers were around a thin chain that I always wore under my shirt. I pressed the cold pendant that hung off it against my chest, looked at them, smiled and shrugged. The stupid question stumped me.

‘Oh – look here, he has nothing to say how strange,’ Lexie laughed, ‘no smart, cheeky answer? No silly joke on account of us? Who is the girl? Please don’t tell me it’s that idiot Chelsea Brown. I never liked her at school and I don’t like her now.’

‘Chelsea is alright,’ Phillip said but then cleared his throat as Lexie turned to him with a look I couldn’t see, ‘er- is there something you’re keeping from us Taim?’

‘What is falling in love? Really?’ I joked and shrugged again.

Lexie was about to answer me when luckily a group of her friends that I hardly knew joined us.

It was then that I started to really think about it, Florence’s stupid question. It was stupid because my first reaction and answer was that I’d never been in love the way Philip and Lexie were or to any degree lesser than that. I was never interested in girls or interested enough to get involved with them more seriously than I needed to be. The rare times I did get involved, I got bored easily and abandoned all effort in making them feel as or more important than Phillip, Lexie or my studies and family. I suppose that’s why all my ex’s ended up hating me.

There was something else that bothered me about that question. It reminded me of someone. A girl whose face I could still clearly picture. As soon as I saw her, lurking there behind my eyelids I remembered everything. The name of the song at the party and all the lyrics came back to me. Then the girls name appeared like smoke taking shape. Tara. It was like a key, a passport that took me to old faces in a place across the world. I was going down the rabbit hole, where witches and beasts lived where promises whole or broken meant everything to me.

Tara. That name, her face, it obliterated all the Annas, Sarahs, Elinors, Yasmines, Kristinas who have been trying to figure me out and fuck me up over the years. Instead there was just one girl with the darkest hair I’d ever seen, wearing a green dress, holding a loaf of bread, ready to run away.

Ibrahim Safie studied Latin at university. He regrets it. Since then he’s had a bunch of odd jobs and has written a few short stories and completed his novel Gypsy Prince. If you’re interested to read more contact The Arab Edition here as it’s unlikely you’ll find Ibrahim on social media.

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