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The Pearl House

13 Jun

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Mariam had emerged from the flight into bright sunshine, wistfully recalling the rain sodden fields of England, stretched across an autumn landscape as the plane lifted her away from Manchester to Bahrain, wherein lay the source of her epiphany. Not that Bahrain was completely unknown to her, for she had spent time here with her grandparents, although the last visit happened twenty years ago, when she was six years old; but she had never forgotten her Grandmother Sarah, a woman whose warmth embraced all those around her, just as the sunshine embraced Mariam that morning on her return.
The house when she reached it was smaller than she remembered, pale orange limestone, the colour of the land on which it stood, with arched windows and doors. Her mother had called it the Pearl House, because her great, great Grandfather Abdulla, a pearl diver, had built it with his earnings. Her mother had often reminded her with pride that Bahrain’s pearls are the best in the world. ‘It’s because Bahrain has two waters habibti, salt and sweet. They give the pearls a special lustre.’
Mariam’s mother spoke mostly English to her daughter, but her language was generously laced with Arabic and Mariam loved to hear the term of endearment habibti, dear little one. but she only half listened to her mother. Growing up in Liverpool offered more immediate interests and Bahrain became a remote, tiny island which existed only through her mother’s memories and some faint recollections of distant childhood encounters.
Now here she stood, once again at the Pearl House, in the land of salt and sweet, consumed by thoughts of her mother, who had spent her childhood within its walls.

She removed a key from the red velvet pouch in which it had arrived, along with a letter, six months ago in April, when pink cherry blossom bloomed to brighten the streets of Liverpool.

Mariam, an art tutor at the University, was handed the life changing package by the postman, as she clambered into her car. Assuming it was a book she had ordered a few days earlier, she had tossed it onto the back seat and made her way to work. It was much later, on her return to the red brick terraced house she rented on Penny Lane, that she cut open the package. The key, together with a letter, had been sent just days before.

When she entered the house, with its thick limestone walls and narrow wooden stairwells, she remembered; cool rooms adorned with Persian rugs and carved wooden furniture., walls hung with beautifully scripted Quranic Verse and in the centre, a pale pink courtyard with a water well, around which the women had gathered, uncovered, beneath the azure sky.

Sitting on the low wall surrounding the well, she remembered the women, her grandmother, mother and aunties, bright and vibrant beneath the same old palm which shaded her today. She could almost hear the laughter and banter as it used to be and was surprised by the clarity of her memories, which had been hazed by the passage of time.

Now she removed her hijab and pulled the letter from her pocket. Could this have been its place of origin? She sensed her grandmother’s presence as she read:

 

Dear Mariam,

Although time and distance have separated us for so many years. You have never been far from my thoughts. After your mother died, I wanted you to come and live with me in Bahrain, but you had your own life in Liverpool and I respect that.

I write to you today with a sad heart, because I know I will not see you again, as I had hoped.

I have cherished the letters and pictures you sent me when you were a little girl. They gave me great pleasure.

Mariam, I want you to have my house. I have enclosed the key and legal papers.

Inside the house you will find a dana, the biggest and most beautiful of pearls, but you will have to search hard. It is well hidden.

Good bye Mariam,

Ma as salama hibibti

Your Grandmother,

 

Mariam considered the pure poetry of her presence there at the Pearl House, beneath a palm tree in her own courtyard.  But sentiment aside, she had come to find the dana and sell the house. Her leave from work expired in four weeks and she hoped to return with enough funds to buy a place of her own, close to the University.

 

The sky darkened and a half moon lit the night.  There was a four poster bed in the main bedroom with cotton sheets and a heavy quilt for which she would have no use in the heat. She acknowledged the ceiling fan with gratitude and decided to get some sleep now and devise a plan of action in the morning.

A knock at the door startled her and she considered ignoring it, but the second knock was more urgent. Through the security peephole she saw large brown eyes set in a pale face peering back at her. She opened the door and in swept five cloaked women, carrying a variety of dishes covered with tin foil and smelling particularly good to Mariam, who had eaten very little since leaving Manchester.

‘Mariam, let me look at you!’ cried the elder of the group, ‘I’m your aunt Mai! Remember me? It’s been so long, so long. But alhumdalilla here you are, safe and looking just as I remember you.’

‘Not quite as you remember, mother.’ A younger woman chimed. ‘She’s quite a bit older, but still beautiful! Hello, I’m your cousin Nouf, Mariam, and this is Noor, Lulu and Shams. All cousins, the tip of the ice berg hibibti, there are lots more. We brought shawarma and dates because we thought you might be peckish.’

Mariam, having been swept into her kitchen, was soon enjoying the shawarmer and banter with her long lost family, astonished by her instant acceptance.

‘We have such a lot of catching up to do,’ smiled Lulu, the youngest cousin, ‘I would love to hear all about life in Liverpool. Are you sad to be leaving there?’

‘No not at all. In fact I’m not leaving Liverpool. My work is there, you see and I’d hate to give up my job, so I had to make the very difficult decision to sell this house and buy another, close to the University.’

The silence was brief but tangible.

‘Did Grandma mention the dana?’ asked Nouf, trying to recover the ambience.

‘Yes she did.’ Mariam replied, surprised by the question. She said there was one in the house.’

‘Mother often mentioned it to us, but we never actually saw it. She told me she wanted you to find it. ‘Mai murmured dreamily. Then with a sudden awakening, she began to usher her daughters out.

‘We’ll be back to see you tomorrow inchallah.’ She promised.

‘I’ll help you search for the dana if you’d like.’ Lulu offered.

‘Thanks Lulu, please return whenever you wish, I can only stay four weeks and would love to get to know all of my Bahrain family before I leave.’

‘Inchallah’ they chorused, and were gone.

 

Abdullah had been underwater for three minutes and knew he would soon have to return to the surface: four minutes was his limit. The rock, caught in an undulating shaft of sunlight was almost his height and he was determined to shift it.  The oysters peeping from beneath must have been there for many years and the promise of a pearl was great enough to spur him beyond normal endurance.  He was afraid that if he returned to the surface for air he would not find the rock.

 Half hidden beneath the sandy seabed, a spike of driftwood emerged beneath his feet, hastily he picked it up and levered the rock with all his strength. At last it shifted enough for him to ease the shells from beneath with his left foot, far enough so that when he let go, the rock would not trap them again.  His lungs were about to burst and his head ached as he scooped the shells into the net and sped to the surface.  The little raft bobbed on the water as he hauled himself up and lay exhausted beneath the makeshift canopy on the hot deck, clinging to his treasure.

 

After the departure of her aunt and cousins Mariam had climbed into her grandma’s four poster bed and, cool beneath the ceiling fan, slept until the call to prayer awoke her at dawn.

The room was filled with light, pushing its way through white blinds and she thought about home and the darkness of winter months in Liverpool. It had been a harsh winter but the warmth of the early morning sun was a balm.

After a breakfast of coffee and a bread roll courtesy of Aunt Mai, she had begun her search for the dana. She was feeling less optimistic about finding it since talking to the family, all of whom knew about it, but none of whom had even seen it. Perhaps it was hidden in the foundations and she would have to resort to knocking down the house. However, she would be systematic and search all the options before resorting to anything drastic. There were drawers galore to be searched. The house had been untouched since her Grandma’s death and Mariam began to realise that the search could take a while. Every cupboard and drawer contained bundles of photographs, letters and documents, as well as many beautifully carved and decorated boxes, each filled with treasure of some sort. However, Mariam had done her research and knew that the money raised from the sale of just one dana, would be enough to buy the house she wanted in Liverpool, and she was determined to find it.

 

 

Abdullah recovered quickly from his underwater ordeal, and with the agility of youth, began to prize open his cache.  There were ten oyster shells, and he enjoyed the mystery each contained, whether it would be life changing or just a sleepy oyster, each one was special.  It was the sixth shell he opened that rewarded his efforts.  Inside lay a perfect pearl, the answer to his prayer. This pearl would enable work to begin on his house.  He would buy land and materials to build a home for Aisha his new wife.  Abdullah thanked Allah for blessing him with the pearl as he continued to open the remaining shells.  He knew that to find one pearl in a batch of only ten, was astoundingly lucky and so, when he opened the shell that contained the dana, he cried with joy.’Machallah! A dana! Now I am rich beyond belief! Allah be praised I will never have to work again.’  Exhausted and clutching his treasures Abdullah lay beneath the canopy of his dhow and contemplated life as a rich man.

 

The familiar sound of her mobile disturbed the quiet.

‘Hey Mariam! How are things with you? Did you make it to your house? I can’t wait to hear all about it.’

‘Sally! So good to hear your voice. It’s unbelievably hot here .The house is very sweet and yesterday I met some of my long lost family.’

‘Already? How did it go? I envy the heat by the way. It’s so cold here.’

‘The family is amazing, and very welcoming.’

‘Sounds good Mariam; you may be tempted to stay.’

‘No Sally I’ve no intention of staying. My exhibition is early December and I have work to do for it, besides which, I only have four weeks leave, so I won’t be letting the grass grow and hope to have the house on the market by the end of the week. I’ll keep you in the loop. Say hello to everyone and tell them I miss them.’

‘We all miss you Mariam. Take care and keep in touch. Bye for now.’

‘Bye Sall.’

Mariam stood on the wooden veranda of her grandmother’s room watching the setting sun reflect its scarlet radiance on the surface of the Persian Gulf and remained there after saying goodbye to her friend, until the scarlet faded, leaving a deep blue star speckled expanse of Middle Eastern sky.

The call to prayer echoed around Bahrain above the drone of rush hour traffic and she turned towards the room, ready to resume her search.

 

 

Abdulla chose the land on which to build his house, with care.  He positioned it so that the waters from whence the pearl had come could be seen, together with the setting sun. 

‘My pearly waters turn ruby red at the day’s end and then the sky is filled with diamonds..’  He would say to Aisha, as they stood on the veranda watching the sunset and waiting for the birth of their first child in the House of Pearls.

‘My life is filled with treasure.’

 

Mariam was seldom alone in the house. There was a constant stream of family visitors to join her as she emptied drawers and opened ornate wooden chests which adorned the alcoves and stairwells of her house. Each chest contained treasure from the past, layer upon layer of carefully preserved history of the Pearl House. Inside the most ancient wooden chest, dated 1895 were the simple tools of a pearl diver; a rope basket and a knife to prize open the oyster shell. Aunt Mai laid them on the kitchen table.

‘These are the nets great granddad used to find the pearls which built the house.’ she mused. Mariam handled them with reverence, sensing their intrinsic connection to the house and its history.

She welcomed the assistance of Mai and her daughters. The task was vast and her time, limited. There were scores of stories and memories stored in every crevice of the once vibrant home. Letters, paintings, photographs, diaries … each new day Mariam and her cousins entered a new era of the Pearl House, among plates of Shawarma, pizza and sweet treats brought from local bakeries, the invisible threads of shared ancestry emerged and slowly began to bind them together.

Inside a red box labelled ‘Mariam’, she was touched to find her childhood paintings and sketches. One showed her mother beside a tree holding a small posy of flowers; in spite of the childish execution, stick legs and no shoulders, it looked remarkably like her mother.

‘I remember how we chose the pictures to send. Mum would write a letter to Grandma Sarah and tell me its content, and then I would draw pictures to illustrate the letter. Look Lulu, my poem!

Pearly pearls,

pretty and precious,

shiny smooth,

silky spheres,

In oyster shells

beneath the blue

Bahraini Sea.”diver please dive

Down,

Down,

Down

And find a

Shiny silky

Pretty precious pearly pearl for me

Then bring it

Up

Up

Up

Above the blue Bahraini Sea

Then I shall wear the pearly pearl

And be as pretty as can be.

 

‘Mashalla Mariam! Grandma loved getting letters from you and your mum.”

Weeks passed, but the dana remained elusive.

The sale of the house was underway and within a week Mariam would have to leave Bahrain and return to her ‘real life’, as she called it, dana nor no dana. Before she left she would ensure that the contents of the house were safely in the hands of her family. She was surprised by the depth of affection she felt for her aunt and cousins. The whirlwind of visits from one house to another, planned by aunt Mai had been unexpected, but delightful. She now knew every living member of her family in Bahrain and had been treated with irrepressible affection.

‘When will be the best time for me to visit you in Liverpool?’ her cousin Nouf wanted to know. They were enjoying a treat at Nouf’s favourite venue Lilu’s, a French restaurant which Mariam also adored.

‘Summer will be a good time.   I won’t be working and we’ll be able to do the tourist trail together. You’ll like Liverpool, there’s plenty to see and do.’

‘Summer it is then. Book me in cousin. Now that I’ve found you I refuse to lose you.’

 

The sky diamonds sparkled above Abdullah’s Pearl House year after year, as his family grew. Five children produced fifteen grandchildren and the Pearl House was never silent, except at the dead of night when Abdullah would lie awake and think about the day he found the dana, and how that day’s work had made all that he had, possible.  He made sure that before he passed away, all of his children and grandchildren knew the story of the dana and the secret of its hiding place.

 

With only a few days remaining of her stay in Bahrain, Mariam’s search for the dana became obsessive. There was no place she had not scoured, alone and in the company of her aunt and cousins. By now she had relived the history of the Pearl House and felt there was nothing left to uncover. She knew the names and faces of the people who had spent their lives, or part of their lives within its walls and was aware of the treasure that lay behind its unassuming exterior.

Time was running out and a few people had been to view the house. Fear was rising within her but she could not comprehend why. Was she afraid of failing to find the dana? Or was there another source of the fear?

Sally called from Liverpool.

‘Can’t talk long it costs a fortune. When will I see you?’

‘Monday . I’ll reach Manchester around three in the afternoon inchalla’

‘Inchalwhat?’

‘Never mind Sall. See you soon.’

‘I’ll be there to meet you Mariam.’

‘Ok’

‘Bye’

‘Bye’

There was a knock at the door; it was the familiar little ditty Nouf used.

‘Mariam, we’re going to Uncle Hakim’s house; get ready.’ Nouf announced handing her cousin an abeya, encrusted with faux diamonds around the sleeves and hemline.

‘I’m too busy Nouf,’

‘Take a break from the search hibibti and let’s go. I have a taxi waiting.’

Inwardly angry and annoyed by the intrusion, Mariam donned the abaya over jeans and tee-shirt and a pair of black high heeled shoes.

Within ten minutes they had reached their Uncle’s house in Umm al Hassam where the menfolk were enjoying tea on the front porch.

‘Here is our Liverpool Princess,’ Uncle Hakim announced with a broad smile, ‘No sooner has she come but she will go, Abdullah. No sooner found than lost again.’

Abdullah, a young man of slender build with dark, soulful eyes, smiled good-naturedly at Mariam, who could not control the blush that all observed.

Nouf hurried her into the house which was packed to bursting with Mariam’s family, young and old.

She must have been hugged and cheek kissed a hundred times and the feast was indeed fit for a princess. Uncle Hakim was her mother’s oldest brother, and now the patriarch of the family. He looked frail but dignified in his striped thobe and before the gathering dispersed, he spoke with kindness about the daughter of his little sister Malaak.

‘Mariam has returned to us and with her came the memories of our spirited sister Malaak. We saw her last in the Pearl House for which she had such great affection. It was in this knowledge that our beloved mother bequeathed the house to Mariam, in memory of Malaak.

We wish you well in your future. You may find the hidden dana which your great, great grandfather embedded somewhere within its walls, but even if you don’t, we hope you will remember the house of your family and the brief time you spent there, with affection.’

The gathering erupted into applause and Mariam fought back tears, aware that Abdullah was watching and also aware of an unfamiliar concoction of emotions which caused a quickening of her heartbeat and a desire to escape and seek solitude.

Later, in the cool of her room she examined her reactions and very quickly concluded that she was strongly attracted to Abdullah.

The search was over. She knew that without stripping the Pearl House to its foundations, she would never find the dana, but there were a few interested buyers, and the valuer had surprised her when he revealed how much she could expect for the sale. Mariam had one final night in the house. Her bag was packed and she had left the keys with Aunt Mai so that she and her cousins could clear the contents when the time came.

The night sky was studded with stars and a full, bright moon reflected on the water, like the dana she had failed to find. There was a hardening of the heart in process as she looked out to the water from her bedroom veranda, though she sensed an intangible force, battling to penetrate that hardness.

To stay would make no sense. She needed an income and the University would be badly let down if she failed to return. Besides which, her exhibition was planned for next month. She had to sell and go.

But the hovering moon and distant pearling waters, the mellow sandstone walls, heavy wooden doors, rickety spiral stairs, shady courtyard and sweet water well; the warmth of her family and the presence of the ones no longer of this earth were tugging hard at her heart.

Her phone rang.

‘Hi Mariam it’s Sally. Hope you’re packed and ready for the big return.’

‘Sally …… yes, all ready, see you tomorrow.’

‘Great! Bye for now. Love you!’

‘Love you too! Bye.’

 

The airport had changed in the four weeks since her arrival. It now belonged to a place she knew and loved. Aunt Mai, Nouf, Lulu and Noor were there to see her off and, to her surprise, with them was Abdulla.

‘I hope we meet again Mariam.’, he said. ‘Would you be offended if I were to write to you?’

‘I’d be very happy to hear from you Abdulla. Tell me all about my crazy Bahraini family.’

There were hugs and tears.

‘See you in Liverpool.’ Nouf called as Mariam reluctantly trundled her suitcase to the check in counter.

Could this be the hardest day of her life? At duty free she bought some trinkets for her friends back home, but could find nothing that would express the depth of affection she felt for Bahrain, her family and perhaps more intriguingly, Abdulla.

Climbing the steps of the plane was like wading through treacle, each step harder to take, and before switching off her phone,she sent a final text to Nouf.

‘Stop the sale of the house! I’ll be back J’

As the plane gathered speed, she sensed the elation of her cousins when they read the text, but she doubted it could be as deep and joyful as her own.

Sally met her at Manchester, waving a ‘welcome home’ banner. It was a relief to see her friend after the long journey, resembling an Arctic explorer in her fluorescent pink and green woolly hat, scarf and gloves, sheepskin boots and a broad smile, warm enough to melt the Arctic. Mariam prepared herself for the ensuing cold shock to her pampered system.

Winter clouds, low and darkening threatened to dump a reservoir of snow on the scurrying populous, eager to reach homes and firesides before the white event.

‘Keeping the house!’, Sally was genuinely shocked by Mariam’s announcement. ‘What about your job and the Edge Hill house?’

‘I’ll keep the job for a while inchalla but the Edge Hill house will have to crawl back into the oyster shell dream from whence it came.’

‘Inchalla? What does that mean?’

‘God willing.’

 

It was dark when Abdullah opened his eyes, heard the lapping of water, saw the star studded shy and felt the bobbing motion of the dhow.  The waves had carried him, sleeping to the shore and gently rocked him awake.  Upright now, his hands clutching the oyster shells, he recalled his amazing good fortune in finding a pearl and a dana. Fumbling in the darkness he lit his lamp and laid the two shells on the sand, breathless with excitement.  There was the pearl, his first treasure, but within the second shell lay only an oyster.  There was no dana.  Abdullah searched the dhow and the sand on which it had moored, but he knew it was lost.  Perhaps it had slipped from his grasp while he slept, or perhaps he had only dreamed his find.

 

The room felt cold and Mariam eyed the dark patch of damp in the corner of the bedroom ceiling as she huddled beneath her duvet, encased in winceyette pyjamas and thick bed socks. Sleep was swift and deep. She was awakened by loud knocking. Nine a.m. the clock informed her.

‘Mariam Hussain?’

She nodded.

‘Sign here please.’

She signed and padded back upstairs to her warm bed; not yet ready to face a winter’s day in Liverpool.

The package was a special delivery from Bahrain. She prized it open. Inside were two envelopes, a pink one on which the words, ‘Read Me First’ were written in green ink and a floral gold trimmed exquisite affair on which was written, ‘Mariam’.

She sunk beneath the duvet in the half light of the draughty bedroom and began to read the pink letter.

‘Hibibti Mariam,

We miss you already! You can’t imagine the wild celebrations your text message sparked at the airport and beyond. The family is delighted with your decision.

Your Grandma suspected you may wish to sell the house, but entrusted this letter to me in the event you decided to keep it.

We love you Mariam, and hope to see you soon,

Love Auntie Mai.

There was a faint aroma of cardamom on the floral envelope and Mariam paused before opening it, considering once again the perfect poetry of her situation, as she had done beside the well in the pink courtyard of her little Pearl House. The damp, flaky walls of her present surroundings, wove an element of urban grit into the poem.

The letter was written on floral note paper to match the envelope and Mariam resolved to stop emailing and texting and send floral, perfumed letters instead.

 

Dear Mariam,

If you are reading this letter it is because you have found the dana in the Pearl House.

Don’t worry! I know you haven’t, because it doesn’t exist. Well not as you imagined, that is.

Let me explain.   Your great, great grandfather Abdulla, found the pearl which financed the building of the Pearl House, and the story he told his children is that on the same day he also found a dana. He was filled with joy and plans for his life as a wealthy man, but exhausted from diving, he fell asleep. When he awoke the dana was gone. At first he was distraught, but then he realised that Allah had been good and let him keep the pearl which would let him build his house.

Rather than have his life blighted by the loss of the dana, he decided to build into his house an invisible dana. As you know, a pearl is formed by layer on layer of mother of pearl slowly growing year by year until it is revealed. Your great, great grandfather Abdulla began to form his metaphorical dana when he set about building the house. As his family grew, the layers of love increased year by year until now. The Pearl House is a treasure store of family memories, layer on layer, as you will have witnessed during your search for the dana.

Now you know the family secret Mariam. The house is yours and in your care the dana will continue to grow Alhumdalilla!

Be happy habibti.

Your loving Grandma,

 

 

 

‘A metaphorical dana? Okay I can relate to that Mariam. It’s the sort you don’t have to dive in the sea to find; more of a deep dive into life.’

Sally stepped back from the picture, admiring her friend’s skill and the ethereal quality of her paintings, which reflected her recent experience, combining the dream quality of the Pearl House in Bahrain, with the brash reality of City life in Liverpool.

‘Yes Sal,and I suppose you could call exhibiting your artwork a deep dive into life. Why do I do it? ‘

‘Because you can, my dear, and you look amazing tonight; almost as good as your pictures, and if anyone were to brave the Siberian weather, they will be rewarded tenfold!’

‘Thank you kindly my number one fan.’ Mariam hugged her friend and felt a little less nervous as the opening hour approached.

At eight o’clock that evening, as a snow storm swept the City, churning the River Mersey and the Irish Sea beyond, Mariam’s Exhibition opened. Abdullah was first across the threshold, followed by Aunt Mai, Lulwa, Shams and Nouf.

When she told the story to her own children, in the pale pink courtyard of the Pearl House, her husband Abdullah by her side, that is all she could ever recall about her exhibition, for in the first seconds of her deep dive into life, she had found her dana , and Abdullah was rewarded ‘tenfold’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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