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Home Is Where the Heart Is - Part One

It's not always easy returning to a place filled with haunting memories you need to escape...

Her life of comfort seemed fair exchange 
For penance served in a far off land 
Neither heat nor hunger could beat her down 
Spirit growing with every challenge met. 

The years gone by more cruel than kind 
Scars in her heart map each moment of discord 
The one true future she now beholds 
Tainted with the tears of her own bitter despair. 

***

The sound of approaching sirens pierced the silence of the quiescent suburb. With urgent strides my legs carried me closer to Aguilas Avenue; the icy August night air burning its way into my lungs, the staccato of my heartbeat matching the frenzied pattern of my anxious thoughts. I offered silent prayers, my bare feet hitting the cool wet asphalt, moving at a half sprint as an ambulance sped by with sirens wailing. I was half a block away when the sirens stopped. I ran faster, my feet striking the ground with such force it vibrated through my entire body.

I had to skid to a halt to avoid crashing into a wall of onlookers as I turned the corner. Fighting my way through the sea of bodies, my mind vaguely registered the compassionate expressions, the quiet nods, the sympathetic whispers. Everything around me took on a surreal quality as I broke through the crowd. I felt myself moving forward, yet the flashing lights seemed to be moving further away with every step I took. The hushed tones of the crowd, the shrill sound of a screaming child, the quiet sounds of a woman sobbing nearby all blended together and faded into the background, drowned out by the sound of my heartbeat reverberating in my ears. I made it as far as the tail end of the ambulance before my feet refused to move any further, turning to jelly as I took in the scene before me.

All I could see were her legs - Claire’s legs. She had one shoe missing, her left leg twisted at an impossible angle. I remember thinking how much she loved those shoes and how it would upset her that one could be missing or ruined.

Luke was kneeling beside her; his eyes shut tightly, face contorted as if he were in intense pain. A paramedic stood behind him, his hand resting on Luke’s shoulder while another knelt beside Claire just out of my view; all I could see were the blood stained soles of the paramedic’s boots. Luke’s chest heaved as he expelled a deep breath, his eyes opening slowly. I stood transfixed by his wild eyes as they stared up at me, the reflection of flashing red lights making them appear demonic.

Claire’s sister stood a few feet away, clutching the screaming baby and staring down at her lifeless body with vacant eyes. The louder the child screamed the harder she hugged her. I wanted to move closer, relieve her of the struggling toddler, instead my legs buckled and I sank to the ground, hardly fazed by the pain of my bare knees scraping roughly across the tarred surface.

***

A faint outline of land becoming visible as the plane drew closer to the shoreline snapped me out of my reverie, making my stomach muscles tighten in anxious anticipation as I recognised the familiar landmarks that should have been welcoming beacons for any lost soul returning home. The light on the wing flashed steadily as I gazed out beyond the soft white clouds to the shadowy depths below. I sighed as I reached for my water bottle with a shaky hand, trying to wash down the suffocating memories with a gulp loud enough to draw attention from the elderly gentleman beside me.

“Flying make you nervous then, girlie?” he asked with a kind smile presumably meant to put me at ease.

“Err... umm… yes. Terrified.” I turned away from his searching eyes as I capped the bottle. Lying had never been my greatest talent; in fact, it was probably the art that could have saved me from much heartache if I had been more practiced.

I sighed with relief when the seat-belt sign flashed and the Captain’s voice droned on about landing procedures, giving me the opportunity to feign being occupied and break free from his knowing stare. The last thing I needed was to unburden my heavy soul to someone I had met less than half a day ago in an airport terminal, so I continued to fumble clumsily with my seat-belt. Settling back in my seat, I closed my eyes, thankful for the ruse of my apparent fear of flying when I felt a gentle hand on mine with no words spoken. The kind gesture of a stranger acted like a sedative to my rapidly beating heart as the plane touched down smoothly on the tarmac and wheeled its way closer to the cause of my anxiety.

Hoisting my single overnight bag to my shoulder, my eyes scanned the lounge anxiously after making my way from the Immigrations and Customs area. I tried to recall if I had mentioned my flight times to anyone. Aside from my mother, I had not spoken to anyone from Cape Town in over two years, and all I had told her was that I was coming home for a short visit. A slow smile spread across my face as I watched my elderly travelling companion being embraced by a young woman, the warmth and sincerity of the embrace evident as his loved one greeted him, yet I was flooded with relief that no one had come to welcome me home.

The city lights seemed almost foreign to me as I made my way to my hotel, although I had spent the greater part of my life in Cape Town. Never would I have imagined that living in rural Africa for the past six years would have created such a feeling of alienation on coming back home. Finding solace in the fact that I would be returning to my new home in less than two weeks, I parked my rental car in the parking garage of the modest hotel and made my way to the reception desk.

“Good evening, and welcome to Rusty Oak Lodge. Do you have a reservation, ma’am?” the neatly dressed young woman behind the counter piped in her slightly syrupy tone.

“Yes. Good evening. Nicole Landry, I have a room reserved.”

She scanned her guest log, and then smiled up at me as she beckoned a porter and turned to get my room key. “You are in room 304. I hope you have a pleasant stay with us. Your bags will be brought up to your room.”

“I don’t have any extra bags. I will find my way. Thank you.” My curt tone hardly put a damper on her annoyingly chirpy spirit, she smiled warmly and handed me my key card.

My room was a lot nicer than I expected for the price, the heavy scent of dark passion irises greeted me as I took in the understated elegance. I smiled as I noticed the cliché mints on the pillow, as well as the fresh fruit bouquet on the mantle close to the window. “Hmm… not bad for a country bumpkin like me,” I laughed for the first time in days.

Fatigue from hours of travel left my body as I stood under the hot shower with powerful jets massaging my taut muscles. I soaped myself slowly, enjoying the coarse caress of the loofah on my skin – leisurely hot showers were an extravagance very few could afford back home. The scent of lavender calmed my senses as I luxuriated in the steamy confines of the glass cubicle for what seemed like hours, but in essence was less than half hour.

Wrapped in a fluffy white towel, I settled on the bed to call down for a light meal, not because I felt any hunger, more out of the need to find something to do as I considered the empty hours that lay ahead of me, the empty, sleepless hours in a strange bed.

I scanned the television channels as I picked half-heartedly at my chicken salad, trying to find something that might lull me to sleep, hardly being able to focus on anything but my wandering thoughts. I wondered if he knew that I was coming home. I wondered if he cared. The very thought of his indifference caused a dull ache in the centre of my chest, as I fought back unwelcome tears.

Sometime during the night a restless sleep claimed me, a sleep filled with visions from the past, memories from a life left behind, but never forgotten. I woke to a dull throbbing in my head; evidence of a slumber that had left me even more exhausted than no sleep would have.

***

The drive into the suburbs was as I had expected; long delays on the freeway because of continual road works, which made me thankful for the small mercy of driving an air-conditioned car. Strange how we fail to notice the comforts in life until they are no longer there to enjoy – simple things like air-conditioning and driving your own car had become a luxury. My fingers tapped the steering wheel rhythmically as a familiar tune blasted from the speakers, my out of key singing drowning out the thoughts in my head as I allowed the music to carry me away from the honking horns and cussing drivers all around me. “Welcome to Cape Town….enjoy the party…put on your dancing shoes… Cape Town welcomes yoouuuu…” I sang softly as a wave of nostalgia made me smile. What were the odds of the local radio station I had chosen, playing that particular tune at that very minute? Very seldom in my life had I given in to vanity, but in that moment I chose to believe the city itself was acknowledging that it had felt my absence.

My home suburb had not changed much aside from the bright murals painted on the park walls; I slowed to a cruise as I took in the sights, allowing myself to absorb the once familiar surroundings. A few familiar faces stopped to turn and look as I was recognised, a quick wave and a smile ensuing to which I merely nodded politely. Streets still filled with playing children, dogs who enthusiastically chased cars and cats who perched on high to watch the world go by with varied expressions of indifference – it felt like home.

I stopped at the local mall to pick up a few gifts for my brother’s children; the last pictures my mother had sent, along with the bits of chatter she always managed to fit in about them had given me an idea of what their respective tastes would be. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was out of my depths trying to shop for kids. Everything had changed – the mall, the toys, the people – even the simple act of trying to work an ATM felt unfamiliar.

I had told myself that coming home would be fine. My hometown was large, even though the community was a close-knit one. I had come back expecting to run into old neighbours on the street, people I knew from schooldays, friends I had played with when I was little, but I did not think that it was likely that I would run into him. I did not think that he would still be around. I imagined that he had moved out of the suburb, or at the least had stopped shopping at the stores where we used to shop. I should not have assumed that anything would have changed after I had left.

I only needed to see the back of his head to know that it was him. He still sported his trademark ponytail that had always frustrated me. I had threatened to cut it several times in the past, only to be met by his usual joking about it being the core source of his charm and sex appeal. All of our friends thought that it was cute, that it made him look even hotter, I thought it made him look like he was in a low-budget 1990’s movie. It was only later, once we were no longer together that I wondered what Claire thought about it. I wondered if she absent-mindedly ran her fingers through it while they cuddled on the sofa watching old black and white movies together. I wondered if her hands grabbed at his long locks as they rocked together in the throes of passion.

He didn’t see me right away, so I turned to make my way back to the entrance, my head and heart sharing a dull ache as old memories came flooding back.

Nicky?!!! Oh my good Lord. Is it you, girl? It is you!” squealed a familiar voice. I cringed inwardly as it stopped me in my tracks. “How have you been? Give us a hug will ya!” Two powerful arms wrapped around my upper body and pulled me into an embrace that literally squashed my face into a more than ample bosom before I got thrust back and twirled around like a marionette, “Let me look at you. Oh my good Lord, you are looking fine, girl.” She continued without allowing me to get a word in, “When did you get back home? Are you staying with your parents? Oh my good Lord, I have to call the girls, they will want to have you over. Are you free tonight? Would you…”

“She isn’t free tonight,” drawled a deep male voice from behind me. My body stiffened as he continued in a calm voice, “Because she is having dinner with me.”

I smiled with faked warmth at the large, slightly stunned woman in front of me, “It is really good to have seen you again Bertha. Please tell the ladies I said hi, I will call you to let you know when I am free. I am in a real big hurry right now. Sorry.” I pretended not to notice the confusion in her eyes as I turned and made my way out of the store.

“Nic.” The single syllable halted my hand inches from the door handle.

Anger flared up inside of me as I turned to meet his steady gaze with a hard-fought for calm, “What do you want, Luke?”

“To say hello? Isn’t that what old friends do when they see one another for the first time in years?”

“Yes, it is. Except for the tiny fact that you are not my friend. Hello anyway. You can be on your way now.” I said coldly, while trying to convince myself that the slight tremor in my voice was because of the anger I felt toward him.

“This is how you thank me for saving you from Big Bertha?” he laughed and shook his head in an annoyingly charming manner. “About that dinner-”

“I did not need your help; I can take care of myself. How could you think that telling the biggest gossip in town that you are taking me to supper was helping me anyway?” I pulled the car door open and started to get inside, but a strong hand gripping my arm halted me. “What are you-”

“You can’t run forever, Nic.” He let go abruptly. By the time I had spun around, he was halfway down the street, and then disappeared into the hardware store.

***

The first thing I noticed as I pulled into the paved driveway was the fresh coat of paint on the house; the predictable peach my father usually favoured traded for a pale shade of blue. The garden looked lusher than I remembered, there were four new trees, but fewer flowers than there had been six years ago. The tyre swing still hung from a branch of the gnarly old oak tree at the side of the house, it looked worse for wear, as if a rodent had tried to hungrily chew through the ropes.

I turned off the radio and stepped out of the car just as I noticed the kitchen curtain move, smiling as I pictured mum peering to see who had pulled into the drive with loud music blasting, I could almost hear her mumbling on about young people today having “not a thread of decency”. I moved toward the porch steps as the front door flew open and a pink blur rushed out and threw her arms around me, hugging me tightly enough to expel the air from my lungs. “Mommeeeee, you’re breaking my ribs.” I giggled like a little girl.

She stepped back and smiled brightly up at me. “If you ate more than just leaves and seeds, your bones wouldn’t break that easy. Now get inside so I can feed you! ” she chastised with mirth as she moved back up the stairs.

My mother had always been a jovial person, not one to be trifled with though, she spoke her mind and she did not care who disliked her for her candour. She called out loudly as I stepped inside the hallway. “Charles? Charles! I have the most darling surprise for you.” Then she dragged me along the hall to my father’s study, he looked up from his book with slight annoyance flitting briefly over his still handsome features. “Look at what the stork delivered. Ta da… it’s a daughter!” She giggled at her own joke as my father and I observed one another silently.

“Daddy.” I nodded.

He nodded back and with a sigh closed his book and rose to his feet. “It is good to see you, Nicole.”

“I have to call Stephan. They should come to supper. Oh, I am so happy to see you. What shall I cook?” She hugged me again and swooshed out of the room like a whirlwind.

An uncomfortable silence ensued once she had left us alone.

“What are you reading?” I ventured further into his study.

“It’s the latest series of wildlife photos by David Attenborough.” He glanced down at the book, then back up at me. “You can borrow it if you like.”

“I love David Attenborough’s work. He’s really good.”

We continued to discuss the merits of wildlife photography; it seemed the safest topic for discussion. The conversation was stilted, I felt like I was making polite chit-chat with a stranger I had just met on the bus.

“I need to go find mom… check to see if she needs help in the kitchen.”

My excuse sounded feeble even to my own ears. My mom never needed help in the kitchen. Everyone knew that, especially my dad.

“Yes, you do that. She will no doubt be cooking up a small feast in your honour.” The dismissal in his tone was clear.

***

Supper with my family that evening was torture. My dad was silent throughout most of the meal, whilst giving me frequent critical looks as I spoke of my life in Somalia.

“You remember that community project you started, Nicky? Of course you remember. How silly of me.” She giggled, seemingly aware of the growing tension between her husband and daughter, yet choosing to ignore it. “It has grown so much. They still offer counselling to abused women and children, but they have now added a wing that houses troubled teenagers. If you ask me, all teenagers are troubled… but oh well, no one is asking me.”

“That’s wonderful, Mom. I should drive by there before I go back home.”

My mom chatted on about all the positive things that had come out of the community project I had started in the neighbourhood before I left. She had always been proud of all my achievements, even the ones I deemed insignificant. She was the only person in the family encouraging me to follow my dream before I left home six years ago to immerse myself in humanitarian work in Somalia. My father had never hidden his displeasure at my leaving; he made it clear that he had always hoped that I would follow in his footsteps and join the surgical team at All Saints Memorial; he had never gotten over the fact that the path I had chosen had led me away from family, friends, reputation and money. The path I had chosen led me to enlightenment instead. Given a choice, I would always follow the path of my heart.

“The ladies at the centre are always asking about you,” Mom continued. “We should have a few of them over for…”

“What car are you driving these days, Sis?” Stephan’s voice drowned out the rest of what mother was saying.

I looked up at him stupefied. “I er… well I don’t really drive much at home…”

“You should come outside after dessert. I think you will really like my new car. Turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, dual clutch and it even has built-in radar that acts as a warning system for collisions.” Stephan flashed me a proud toothy grin. I nodded and smiled, which he naturally mistook as a sign that I was impressed. “It even has minimal emissions, perfect for you tree-huggers. I will take you for a spin.”

Was this really the brother I had grown up with? I hardly recognized him anymore.

My brother continued in his usual manner, trying to impress me with everything he had achieved since I left. He had made partner at one of the city’s leading law firms, he was driving the latest A class Mercedes-Benz, his children were in the best private school in Cape Town, it surprised me that he hadn’t shown me the designer jocks he was undoubtedly sporting proudly. I sat there pushing my food listlessly around my plate as I fought the compulsion to cheerily push my fork through his tongue to get him to stop talking.

The children argued loudly throughout the meal about who had gotten the best grades on their latest exam, not even my father’s scowl could bring them under control.

“I watched about the people over there on the news. Over there in Mogadan, where you work,” chirped his wife with a wide smile on her painted face.

“Mogadishu.” I smiled as I popped a bit of lettuce into my mouth to keep me from saying what I really wanted to say, chewing slowly as I counted back from ten.

“Yes, that’s what I said. I saw how skinny those people are, I was telling Stephan that I need to move there so I can lose some weight.” Her soft laugh wafted through the room as I pushed my chair back with a screeching sound, ready to give her prettily made up face a fresh coating of chicken lasagne.

“Nicole.” My father’s softly commanding tone halted me as the source of my annoyance continued to giggle at her joke oblivious to any growing tension in the room. “I have a book I want to show you. Madge, Nicole and I will take our coffee in the study, if that is okay.” Before my mother could reply, he had risen to his feet and was heading for his study with a perplexed daughter in tow.

“Shut the door please.” He browsed the bookshelf as I obeyed his command. “You cannot allow your emotions to control you like that. There are times I would like to toss the both of them, along with the twins into the pool, but I need to restrain myself for the sake of my family. You know that by family I really mean your mother?” he smiled.

My father’s smile could melt an iceberg, I had not seen him smile at me, nor have I heard it in his voice once in over six years, I turned toward the window as I fought back a fresh wave of tears. “Yes, we tolerate a lot for her sake.”

“Sit down, Nicole.” He sat down on the leather sofa and patted the seat beside him. “Not everything can be fixed.”

“Yes, I know that Dad.” I eyed him with curiosity as he turned the book over in his hands.

“Some things break fast, like snapping a twig between your fingers, others break down gradually over time until they are shattered just like that twig. Either way, they are broken. You and I, we are smart. We fix things for a living, but even we cannot fix everything.”

“Where are you going with this dad?” I patted his hand gently.

“Trusts are broken, hearts are broken, families are broken, and lives are broken. Things that happen in our past cannot be changed, history remains written in ink. It is only what lies ahead that we have any influence over, Nicole. Sometimes we just do the best we can to survive in a broken world. ” I recognized the book cover as he turned it over yet again, my heart swelling with emotion as he patted my hand back.

I knew my father well enough to know that he would soon reveal where he was headed with this slow-moving train. I did not interrupt him again; I was enjoying the journey too much for me to be worried about the destination. It had been too long since we had shared the closeness we had always enjoyed.

“People who die remain dead. Trust that is lost may never return. A heart that is broken will never love in the same way again. A family that is torn asunder by strife will never renew that broken bond. Family is important, it is the foundation that keeps us strong or knocks us down. We cannot always get along with or agree with one another, but we can always love unconditionally.” He handed me the book, “Do you remember this?”

I mouthed the all too familiar opening verse from memory, my breath catching in my throat as childhood memories flooded back. 

" In a little old cottage stood atop a faerie knoll,
Lived a young lass, her name was Jessie Carol. 
Her mum had long passed; her dad tried his best, 
But little Jessie oft put his patience to the test. 

Sometimes she wished that she could help him see,
That she really was trying to be the best that she could be. 
He taught her to give thanks when they broke bread, 
And to call on the angels to watch all night over her bed. 

Little did her dad know that Jessie’s heart often felt sad,
For it seemed everything she did made her look quite bad. 
Until one day, she met a new friend – kind, brave and bold, 
And little by little a secret world of mystery began to unfold.” 

I brushed at a stray tear, “How could I ever forget, Dad. You read it to me every night.” 

“I was keeping this to read to your children someday. It was never about you refusing the post at the hospital. It was about you leaving. I would have done anything to make you stay. To see you fulfilled. When you left, you broke that dream.” He smiled again and I smiled back, despite the fact that my heart was shattering at seeing the pain in his eyes. “Keep the book; you may still need it someday.”

A soft knock broke the intensity of the moment, followed by mom popping inside. “You ready for coffee, dears? You need an extra slice of this carrot cake, I made it with pecan nuts instead of walnuts, just the way you like it.”

“Thank you, Mom. It smells delicious.”

“Alrighty then, I will leave you two to catch up. Charles, please see that she eats her cake, she hardly touched her supper.” And with a last stern look at me and a flourish of her floral pink skirt, she was gone. I could hear her fussing with Stephan about needing his help with understanding some documents, and him insisting that he wanted to take his coffee in the study with us. How silly he was to think that he could win any battle against a force of nature like mom, soon the hall was silent again.

“I am not staying in Mogadishu, Dad.” I said as I squeezed his hand reassuringly, “I’m in a small village on the outskirts of Baraawe, far from the dangers of the city. I have many friends there and people there respect us for the work we do. I am not in any danger.”

Dad and I sat chatting quietly for about an hour more; me explaining to him what type of work I was doing in Somalia, him offering medical advice where he could. Little by little I began to understand why he had treated me as coldly as he had over the years; I started to fully comprehend how much he feared for my safety in a war ravished country that posed a risk to even the bravest of soldiers.

I waved a quick goodbye as I passed the living room, dad and I still talking as he walked me out. Predictably, mom came rushing after us pleading with me to stay at the house instead. I hugged her with a promise to visit again the next day, winking at my dad conspiratorially as he smiled and shook his head.

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