Fatima Martin was brought up a Catholic in Austria. She studied Arabic and Islamic Studies at Vienna University during which time she was granted scholarships to learn Arabic in Egypt and Sudan. After graduation she went travelling, ending up in Jerusalem where she met her spiritual teacher deputy mufti of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Having said the shahaada she studied with him for a year, while at the same time teaching German at a Palestinian school. After her marriage to a British convert she moved to the UK. She has worked as a translator and teacher before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University. When the Mountains are Scattered as Dust was short-listed for two previous awards before winning the MWA 2008. This is the first chapter of her debut novel.
‘Karl,’ Lena thinks, when she hears the door to her flat being opened. She wants to finish the paragraph she is writing before she welcomes him but then she feels his hand on her neck. He pulls her up and drags her to the wall on the right. He pushes her back against the wall and lets his hand lie heavy just under her throat. She can breathe freely but she is not able to move.
‘Get off me,’ she says and tries to loosen the grip of his hand, turning
her head away from it, trying to avoid the smell of turpentine coming off it. Karl just grins.
‘Are you sleeping with that Arab?’ he asks in his slow mellow voice that always sounds sensual.
She has relaxed by now and looks up at him.
‘No,’ she says. Lena wonders how he knows about Aziz but says nothing. She has learnt to say nothing when Karl behaves this way. If she ignores it, he will stop it immediately, if not, they will fight.
Karl’s lips close in on hers. The kiss is hard. Then he lets go of her.
‘I’m hungry,’ he says.
Lena doesn’t want to cook now. She wants to complete the chapter on “Divorce statistics in Austria and Turkey” and then go for a walk.
Karl stands right next to Lena. He fills her tiny room. When he is in it, she can only concentrate on him. He visits whenever suits him best. No prior phone call, no agreeing on a time.
‘I’ll go round to the Turkish shop for some cheese and olives. Is that okay? A nice salad with Turkish flat bread?’
‘No, love, let’s cook some chicken.’ Karl takes her chin in his hand and kisses her on the mouth.
Why has this man such power over me? Why can’t I refuse his orders? Lena has avoided finding an answer to these questions for the last few months. I am addicted to Karl, she tells herself, and half believing that this is explanation enough.
Karl watches her take off her Moroccan caftan that she wears indoors. For a second she stands in front of him bare-breasted. She finds her bra, her black Indian skirt that has little mirrors embedded at its hem, surrounded by colourful embroidery. Lena enjoys the velvety feel of the skirt on her bare legs. It is a warm day for March; the long-sleeved, orange cotton blouse she found at the flea market last week will be just fine. She brushes her hair quickly. Reaching down almost to her elbows, with the curls dry and unruly, as always, it needs a trim. When it’s conditioned and oiled her hair is black. At the moment it is a dull dark brown. She parts it into three equal strands and starts plaiting it with her arms reaching backwards. She is very slow until the plait is long enough to be brought over her shoulder and she is able to see it. When she is finished she hides it under a leather hair clip. She looks at Karl. He is standing near the door.
‘I’ll come with you,’ he says, and Lena is not sure whether this is a conciliatory gesture or a threat.
It is a short walk to the local supermarket. Lena and Karl walk in silence. Vienna in the late afternoon, when the sun is too low to reach between the rows of grey houses, always brings out a sense of loss in Lena. This part of Vienna is off the tourist track. The houses are grey from the soot and dust of a century. They are not unattractive as such, with their big wooden windows and high ceilings and spacious rooms, but where Lena lives, amongst the Turks and Yugoslavs, where the rent is cheap and the flats are called “substandard”, an official term used to indicate that the toilet is outside and shared with your neighbour, houses are rarely given a fresh coat of paint. These houses were built at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Vienna was the capital of a vast empire, and cheap housing was needed for all the people streaming into the city. A bassena, a water tap above a porcelain sink in the hallway of every floor, was the focal point for the women, the village well around which they met and exchanged gossip. These hallways are usually spacious, light and high ceilinged, often with beautiful banisters in metal or wood.
Lena considers herself lucky. She has the Augarten nearby, a huge park with a manicured part, where colourful flowerbeds are lovingly replanted in geometric patterns three times between March and August, and an untamed part with chestnut trees and elderflower bushes, the part that Lena roams through very day. Lena grew up in Burgenland, the most Eastern province of Austria bordering on Hungary, in a village at the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake with no tributaries, one of only a few steppe lakes in Europe. The vineyards that surrounded the village and the reed beds fencing the lake were Lena’s playgrounds in childhood. She needs to feel earth under her feet. Concrete makes her tense.
‘All you want me for is fucking,’ Karl suddenly says. ‘You’re angry when I ask you to cook for me.’ Lena keeps quiet, but her stomach tightens.
They walk round the narrow aisles in the supermarket, trying to find the rice. Lena doesn’t usually shop here except for milk and coffee. A woman looks at Karl. He is wearing dark sunglasses. As a painter his eyes are precious to him. He screens them from the weakest ray of sun and can’t be bothered to take them on and off. Lena notices that the woman’s gaze is following Karl. His six foot three makes him visible, more so because he walks with an erect spine, not trying to hide his height. His head is big and square, with cropped dark-brown short hair. He has a too long nose, out of place in a face that with its wide forehead and big lips otherwise looks like the face of a black man in white skin. Lena likes his lips and his big hands.
At the till Lena notices that he has put a bottle of red wine into the basket, and not even the cheap offer of the week.
‘Are you paying for that?’ she asks him.
‘No,’ he says with a grin. The cashier, a fat woman in her fifties, sneers at her. Lena hasn’t got the money to pay for it, not if she wants to go and see Septemberweizen this evening with Anna. She has longed for Karl to visit for the last three days. Now that he is here she is meant to be happy, but her mouth is dry and her breath shallow, as if she were waiting to go into an exam. One wrong word and she might fail; one wrong word and Karl might vanish.
Karl doesn’t offer to carry the shopping. Feminists don’t deserve help is his motto.
Back home Lena smokes one of her tightly rolled joints. She used to smoke only when she needed to concentrate on her studies, because the dope makes her body lazy enough to want to sit down and read and write, but since meeting Karl she smokes a lot more. Karl has opened the bottle of wine and pours himself a glass.
‘To your health,’ he says, and Lena is conscious that he is teasing her, celebrating his victory. What war are we fighting? Lena wants to ask him. Can there be a winner at all?
She skins the chicken and cuts it into eight pieces. The slippery greasy texture of the skin makes her feel slightly nauseous. Karl has seated himself on a stool beside her with his small notepad and sketches her while she chops onions, garlic, olives, and red peppers to add to the chicken. He uses thick pieces of charcoal.
‘Irene flicked through my sketchbook the other day,’ he says casually, his eyes focussing on Lena’s hands and the knife one moment and on his notepad the next, while his left hand never stops moving the charcoal. ‘She was angry when she saw how many sketches there were of you, but she believed me when I told her that I’m not sleeping with you. I think she was reassured that you are not more beautiful than her.’
When Lena is stoned, everything Karl says hurts more. She concentrates on every word and remembers it. She doesn’t know Irene who is twenty-five, five years younger than Lena. Karl was forty a week ago. Karl refuses to talk about Irene. He has married her because she works, she has a flat, and she lets him paint. His income is irregular and she doesn’t mind. That’s what he tells Lena.
As soon as Lena has put the chicken into the oven Karl takes her hand and walks her into her bedroom. Lena can still smell the onions on her hands. Karl slowly undresses.
‘Take that hairclip out,’ he demands. Her hair falls over her shoulders, stroking them gently. Lena looks at him. She always feels judged under his painter’s gaze. When he is completely naked, he comes closer and takes off her blouse. He slides her skirt down her hips. Lena awakes from her paralysis and takes off the underwear herself.
Karl embraces her, pushes her onto the bed. Lena’s bed was passed on to her from her grandmother. Lena doesn’t like the dark-veneered headboard and the hard and ungiving mattress. The feel of the woollen throwover on her naked skin gives her goose bumps but Karl’s urgency to make love to her lets her forget unpleasant sensation of the wool. Unlike her, Karl is not afraid to lose himself. Every time Lena sleeps with a man she longs to find annihilation and leave this body behind, but at the same time her mind will not let her surrender. Even at the moment of orgasm a part of Lena is an observer. She is too aware that a man who can make her forget that she exists, even if only for one single moment, will have gained power over her. Lena has not found the man yet whom she wants to entrust with that power.
Lena met Karl last autumn, about seven months ago, at the Atrium, in the first district of Vienna, close to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The Atrium is not her sort of café, too posh for a working class student like her. She can’t blend in there with all the girls in white jeans and leather boots, with their stylish haircuts and Hochdeutsch conversations. Lena speaks in Austrian dialect. She only ends up in the Atrium when she is lonely and depressed. Her neighbour is a waiter there. Fritz and her share the outside toilet of her flat. Lena does his share of the cleaning, he pays in dope.
She had been sitting all evening at the bar, talking to three students of medicine at least ten years younger than her. It was not their age that created an intense feeling of alienation, but the world they inhabited. The extrovert of them, tall and tanned, his chestnut hair sporting a top-crop hair cut, talked about his planned skiing holidays in Lech am Arlberg, about the brand-new car he had crashed just days after his parents bought it for his birthday. One of them asked her where she lived and couldn’t believe that she wasn’t scared of all the foreigners there. He seemed surprised by the existence of an intelligent person who didn’t mind that she couldn’t afford skiing holidays or a car or a flat in the foreigner-free districts of Vienna.
‘Don’t kid yourself,’ the extrovert said. Lena watched him turn his body to face her completely. She noticed the expensive gold watch on his wrist. His eyes locked into hers.
‘If I fell in love with you and asked you to live with me in my flat round the corner from here you wouldn’t say no.’
‘Even if we assume that I could fall in love with you, I would miss the Augarten,’ Lena said. ‘I would miss my Turkish shops. I would miss the Turkish music in the street in the summer, the people sitting on the pavements and enjoying the warm evenings on chairs brought down from their flats, their children bringing cups of tea and coffee from their own kitchens.’
‘You are weird,’ he said, and turned away.
Lena realised soon after midnight that the last Ringwagen had left and she would have to walk home. Fritz could have given her a lift, but he worked till three in the morning. He was alone behind the bar that day, the girl who usually worked with him was off sick. He had no time for chatting to Lena, trying to serve the people at the bar while at the same time preparing the drinks for the two waitresses serving the tables. Lena was too tired to wait for him. She had no money for a taxi and at about 1.30, by now sitting alone at the bar, got up to get her coat. A man approached her, his steps hesitant, as if his legs were no longer following his orders. He was wearing a denim overall, covered in paint spots.
‘Do me a favour,’ he said, ‘and drive me home.’ He was tall and clean-shaven. His green-brown eyes were bloodshot.
‘I haven’t driven in years,’ Lena told him. ‘Apart from that, where do you live?’
‘Tenth district,’ he said.
‘Forget it,’ she told him. ‘That’s the opposite direction to where I want to be. I couldn’t walk home from there.’
‘You don’t have to,’ he said. ‘I’ll pay your taxi.’
Now Lena was suspicious. ‘Treat yourself to the taxi,’ she said.
‘I need the car in the morning,’ he said, and Lena noticed how he had to hold on to the bar to stay upright.
‘Do you know this man?’ she asked Fritz who was pouring a glass of wine at the other side of the bar.
‘He’s okay,’ he said, nodding his head, as if to reassure her. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to say more than that in front of the man, who didn’t seem interested in their conversation.
Lena asked herself later why driving home a drunken stranger seemed more enticing than walking home by herself which would have taken her less time altogether. There was no rational explanation.
‘Come on, let’s go,’ she said to the man, who was paying for his last glass of vodka.
The car was a red 2CV with the gearbox at the dashboard.
‘No, I can’t drive that car,’ Lena said. She was frightened now. She had passed her driving test over a decade ago, but had never owned a car. She only drove once in a blue moon, when her father or sister let her have their car at the weekend.
‘It’s the same as any other car,’ the man assured her. ‘Put the key in, start the engine, press the clutch and I’ll deal with the gear for you.’ It didn’t work. They were out of sync. In the end Lena told him to let her try by herself. It was easy enough.
‘I don’t know the tenth district,’ she said. ‘You have to give me directions.’ She had to wake him once or twice at a crossroads, but he was okay. He knew where he was.
Lena parked the car in front of a modern house; no doubt all its flats had indoor toilets and bathrooms. They got out of the car and the man put his hand right onto her lower back.
‘This way,’ he said and almost pushed her along. ‘The taxi rank is just round the corner.’ She got into the first taxi of the line.
‘Karajangasse,’ she said. ‘Twentieth district.’
‘Give me a landmark,’ the driver demanded. He wasn’t Austrian.
‘Near the Augarten. Stadtbahn Friedensbrücke.’
‘Karajangasse what?’ Lena’s new friend asked.
Lena hesitated only for a moment before she told him her full address. She didn’t want to start a prolonged discussion in front of the driver, and besides she was convinced that the man wouldn’t remember it, because when Lena was tired and drunk she didn’t remember a thing.
‘And what’s your name?’ he kept on.
She made a point of not asking him anything.
The next day in the afternoon Lena’s doorbell rang. She was too lazy to run the three floors downstairs. The house had no intercom system to find out who was asking to be let in. Strictly against the rules Lena pressed the button to open the door without knowing whom she was letting in. Assuming it to be one of her friends she carried on reading. They all knew that the door to her flat was never locked. She didn’t even have a bell there. After a few minutes of silence Lena got worried. Who have I let in? She got up from her bed, and as she opened the door somebody knocked on it simultaneously. She stared at the man she had driven home the night before.
‘I’ve found you,’ he said, and the way he said it made her feel good.
Lena made coffee, she put on Turkish nay music, they talked a little bit about the man’s paintings and her Ph D thesis, which was going well at that point. But neither of them really wanted to talk. Lena was in a state of retreat at that time. People frightened her. She read a lot and slept little. Her head was full of thoughts she couldn’t always switch off when she was amongst people. When Karl touched her face she suddenly knew what she was missing. She felt like Sleeping Beauty kissed awake. Except Karl wasn’t her prince. After making love to her he showered and got dressed very quickly. He asked for another cup of coffee. While they were drinking it he casually remarked,
‘I’m married. I can only see you during the day. I want to see you again.’
Lena almost screamed when he said it. It was a physical pain that she felt, straight under her heart. It took her breath away, and it made her put down her coffee cup with such speed and lack of attention that half the coffee spilt onto the table, soaking into the envelope of the electricity bill. She quickly got up and fetched a sponge. She was aware that Karl was watching every move of her. Don’t think I have fallen in love with you already, she thought, and that’s why your confession has upset me. But what else could he think, how was he to know that of all the Catholic demands of her mother concerning sex there was only one she had promised herself to adhere to – never to sleep with a married man? Yet even then, at the very beginning, after having only spent three hours with him, Lena could not refuse him, could not tell him that she did not want him to come again.
Lena serves the chicken, its smell now permeating the whole flat. Karl eats with great speed. He can eat big amounts of food in a very short time. Lena has a drumstick and a wing; the rest of the chicken disappears into Karl’s mouth. He never talks when he eats.
‘When are you going to finish your thesis?’ he asks after wiping his mouth and hands with a kitchen towel. Karl doesn’t eat chicken with a knife and fork.
‘No idea,’ Lena mumbles.
‘You must know how much more there is to do. After two years working on it you should be finished soon.’
Lena thinks of her professor, who only this morning had been moving the goalposts of her thesis. Married couples were no longer good enough samples. They must have children because not until we want to hand down our values to children do we seriously look at what they are and whether they are negotiable or not. A real culture clash will only manifest at that point.
‘I don’t know,’ she says to Karl who is busy now sketching her mouth. ‘What does it matter to you?’
‘I want to live with you,’ he says, without looking up from his sketchbook. ‘If you’re happy to support me financially I shall leave Irene. Despite your crazy flat.’ Karl hates Lena’s black and white flat. Her walls are white, the curtains are black. She painted the desk and the table and chairs and all the shelves black. The floors are covered in sisal matting, and there is one yellow armchair in the living room. The cupboards are white. The only colour at the moment comes from her eight six-foot-high marihuana plants, all a lovely dark rich green.
In the kitchen, however, she can bear colour. The cupboards there are blue and orange.
The silence in the room is suddenly painful. Lena’s throat is tight. She gets up from the table and carries their plates into the kitchen.
‘Do you have to get up without warning?’ Karl shouts after her but continues drawing. Lena ignores him.
She lives on a small student grant, supplemented by granny-sitting and work in a Konditorei. As soon as she catches herself seriously considering Karl’s proposal an unpleasant heat creeps into her face.
‘I won’t paint here,’ Karl tries to reassure her. Lena knows that he has a studio at a painters’ collective. She probably would have to pay the rent for it. She visited him there once to look at his paintings of deserted landscapes, untouched by humans, barren and forbidding. The paintings left her feeling hopeless. Karl also paints portraits, his compromise for the sake of Irene, the only paintings that earn him some money.
Lena tries to formulate a clear thought. Her heart urges her to say yes. Didn’t you always want him for yourself? it asks her. Don’t you hate the weekends and nights without him? Her head tries to figure out why the heart has to be silenced.
‘Does Irene no longer want you?’ she asks Karl. He looks up from his sketching pad.
‘On the contrary,’ he says. ‘Irene wants children.’