Auntie’s hands press into the roti flour, lifting and throwing, lifting and throwing. Beside her, knees tucked in and illuminated in the lines of light which move with Auntie’s silhouette, Aisha draws purple trees that look like violet spaghetti clouds. From time to time she sings ‘Jacaranda, Jacaranda’, enjoying the up and down of the word, while Auntie smiles and says ‘yes, Jacaranda’, to the sound of the lift and throw of her kneaded marble swirl.
Aisha will leave soon, and Auntie will stand still, as she always does, in front of this window with its white iron bars and view of the Jacaranda tree, its vivid purple bright against the bark. As the days pass, its flowers will gently drop, the bloom dispersing itself into a violet blanket coating the ground. And while Auntie will continue with her days, going to work, visiting relatives, nurturing small voices at her school, it will be some weeks before she does not miss the shape colouring in her shadow, the little pips of the British voice and strange imaginings of the child. In turn, while Auntie stands for a moment – hands stilled in the flour, paused – Aisha waits in another land for a hand to stroke her hair, and misses the quiet words in a language which she does and does not speak. In this way, they are together though neither knows it; a diasporic bond made by light and memory. If they could both travel through time and space, it would be to moments such as these; the thum-tum of the flour, the scratch of lilac crayon, mirror hands at work.
As Aisha grows she will picture Auntie – will need to, in order to keep her there – butternut shaped and walking through Harare streets with busyness and authority. Aisha will picture navy blue pumps, a pressed navy salwar-kameez and scarf, and the loneliness will feel so heavy that she will turn to her own hands to try and hold on to those so far away. She will wonder if Auntie will ever meet her children, and the grief of that not-yet-lost loss could last for generations. Over telephone static, Aisha cannot tell Auntie that the people here do not know how to pronounce Ma’s name, that they say her own like a continent, and then presume that is where she is from. Over telephone static, Auntie cannot tell Aisha about the years of blankes nie blankes, about suitcases full of trillion dollar bills to pay for bread, petrol queues and generators sighing in the night. But they ask how are you, and how is so and so, and it must be cold there, shame, such hot weather take care now. And perhaps these things are enough, perhaps they are more than nothing at all, or perhaps they are only markers of the gulf.
At night and miles apart, Aisha and Auntie lie in their beds and stare at the ceilings above them. Auntie’s form is encased under white crochet – a smooth hill at the centre of the bed’s neat edges. In the distance, voices rise, horns and shouts of complaint and laughter, bright sparks against the sudden, full dark. The power cut takes each street light, each traffic island invisible, cars left undirected and free. Without the interruption of outside light, Auntie’s room has become a cave whose dark she breathes in, leaving only the up and down of her chest, her breath its own steady cycle within her. Reaching her hand above her face and seeing nothing at all, Auntie reasons that here, in this dark, she could be anywhere in this world, she could be anyone or no-one; she could be just breath and thought and touch. Soon, when the generators click on and the neighbour’s porch light shines through her window (the street lights still snuffed out) she finds herself staring at that hand which hovers above her face, as if surprised to see it there, and thinking of Aisha, wondering what she is doing now, wondering if she is okay.
In a different time zone, Aisha sleeps: hair sprawled across the pillow, covers wrapped and tangled around her, each hand curled into a small, child’s fist. Her dark is illuminated by the twinkling of plastic UV stars, arranged above her bed on her last birthday. The first night she slept under them she experienced a sense of anti-climax new to her; the shape so off, the shine almost green. She was remembering driving through Nyanga with Auntie, asleep on the back seat of the car in the middle of the night, and how Auntie stopped to wake her, how she told her to look up. Here, the sky and stars were all-encompassing, bigger than Aisha, bigger than Auntie, bigger than land or borders or roads. This was Aisha’s knowledge of the stars. Yet, even though the plastic shapes aren’t quite right, their shine a dull blur, perhaps with her eyes closed Aisha still sleeps under that same blanket. Perhaps her hand is not so far from Auntie’s in the dark.
When morning comes they will both go to school – one as a teacher, one as a pupil. Auntie will lose herself in her students, advising just a tuck in your cloth here, just a neaten in the hem there, busy and always moving with the same whirring rhythm of her sewing machine. Meanwhile, Aisha will be forced to fight to keep herself; always a question up against the other children, who don’t understand the faces of her white-brown parents waiting for her after school. At break time, while the other children play Hopscotch or Snakes and Ladders, the girls in Aisha’s year ask if she is Muslim or Christian. Aisha tells them she doesn’t know, can’t she be both? The other schoolgirl’s face, creased in a frown of a problem she can’t quite figure out, will stay in Aisha’s memory until she is old – so old she thinks she sees Auntie in the mirror. She can still hear their voices, monotone and flat, pronouncing their verdict upon Aisha like a sentence: ‘you can’t be nothing’.
Aisha begins to see the margins that people draw in the world, marks them in her mind. You-can’t-be-nothing-you-can’t-be-nothing-you-can’t-be-nothing rolls into her with each day. The words pull and push, pressing lines of separation against her hair, skin, face, against which she must learn to gather herself, resist and say: so be everything. And yet, there will still be times, tired and at the end of the day, when Aisha will take hold of her hands, her feet, and wonder at the lines pressed into them by others, at the words she has to navigate. She will ask herself if she should hold onto them as a reminder, of how far she has come and her vision ahead, or if, instead, she should treat them like an old injury to rub ointment into - coconut oil, arnica – to soothe the weight they take to carry.
Auntie knows about carrying weights, about living on and between lines and thriving in spite of them. If she were able to, she would crouch down and take each of Aisha’s small feet, pulling each toe playfully like a nursery rhyme, and repeat strong, strong, strong. But the UK deny her holiday VISA, they don’t believe that she would return to Zimbabwe – to which Auntie’s laugh, the same since she was a child, rings out as she asks; ‘why would I want to leave my home for Britain? There are no Jacarandas there.’ But then the Summer holidays come around, and Aisha’s feet step off metal plane steps onto concrete runway, onto marble airport floor, onto African soil, onto Auntie’s own as they dance around the living room. In the evenings they oil and braid each other’s hair, the slumber party Aisha always wished for, and eat sweet fruits from a bowl; Guava, Sharon, Pomegranate. Auntie plants patterns on Aisha’s skin, mehndi blooming, and to Aisha it feels like a blessing, a magic shared between aunties and daughters. She only wishes there was enough sugar and lemon to make it stick.
For she will need this magic in her life. Will need Auntie’s hands in hers to help balance that pull which comes in her memory now, backwards and down a line that leads to a classroom somewhere in Britain, grey playgrounds and greyer skies. A teacher’s voice asking pupils to draw their favourite trees, and Aisha’s hands so happy, so free, running for the lilac crayon, seizing it with joy, the noodle swirls growing bigger and bigger, blossoming on the page. So proud of what she has made, so proud of who she will become. And the teacher’s voice – clipped, RP – telling Aisha: No, Ayesha, draw something real, not something imaginary.