The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Pinpricks


The other day at the mosque, I was going in as the children’s weekend classes were dismissed. Among the boisterous, tumbling mass of kids happy to get away, a small boy caught my attention. He looked a little young for lessons. I bent down to smile and speak to him. Immediately he burst into tears. I had frightened him though it was not my intention at all.

A child was frightened, of me? It struck me that through his eyes I must be old and tall, a suspicious stranger looming over him. After all I am the same age as the villains in fairy tales, the same age as evil witches, even older than the average wicked stepmother. Maleficent and Cruella de Vil have become my contemporaries—when I see photos of them, I admire their elegance.

Time is king. Believers, agnostics or atheists—humans or not: time rules us. We submit to it, surrender to it, and are shaped by it. There is no escape from it except to it. It carries us whether we resist or not. In every increment that passes, consciously or not, we bow.

I finish praying and turn to watch the sun rise over the lake. The light hits the water, it glitters, and then everything else comes into view—the forest, a low white building to the side, and a sign in German that I don’t understand. I am in Walberberg, taking part in a seminar organized by the British Council.

I finish praying and turn to see my daughter, trying on the bridesmaid dress for her brother’s wedding. I admire its color: watermelon. I love her smile and excitement. She twists and sways in front of the mirror. We discuss whether the dress is too long, and the hem needs adjustment. Even with high heels, will it drag?

I finish praying and leap up just in time to answer the doorbell. The postman is delivering a parcel that is too big to push through the slot in the door and also needs a signature. I am relieved that I caught him before he gave up and left, taking it back with him to the depot.

The swathes and swathes of existence with moments of what is vital and worth living for. The three moments are pinpricks in time. They are anchored in a continuum that is constantly moving slowly or quickly, tediously or briskly, but never in the opposite direction. People say, and I too catch myself saying, “The months have flown. The years have flown.” But that is not always the case.

I remember severe boredom as a child, car trips that seemed to go on forever, walks that went on until I cried with fatigue. A two-hour plane journey used to make me restless. This all must have been before I started to read, rocked by the hammock of fiction, lulled into pleasure or empathy and enlightenment.

Kill time. It sounds ugly and shameless, yet we do it, we need to. The moments in a queue, in waiting rooms, restless nights coaxing sleep. Or the hours in pain, suspended in anxiety, trapped and unable to escape. Stab at these dark stretches of time; they are unbearable, grotesquely long. We will remember them afterwards; they will stand out stark and assertive, even longer than they actually were; they will take up huge chunks of our memories even when we want to forget.

Waiting for the results of a test, for an overdue birth, for that email that would change the course of life. Am I in or out? Cleared. Chosen or excluded? Counting days on fingers, in chunks on my phone, wishing away all those hours and minutes in between.

Then suddenly it is too late, the decision that is not in my favor, the opportunity lost, the train pulling away, the years melting; too old to have another baby, to retrain, to start from scratch, to undo the damage, tear down a solid wall, too late to speak to X, Y, and Z because they have already died. The hourglass, with its sand trickling away, is relentless. Wikipedia tells me that the coarseness of the sand in the hourglass affects the rate of flow, as does the bulb size and the width of the neck. But the fact remains that we don’t know the hourglass Fate had given us at birth. If we knew we might act differently… but then, we might not.

Do traditional cultures respect the elderly more than modernity ever could? In one, they have gravitas and position; in the other, they are bewildered and sidelined. Age should be about dignity and experience: a place of knowing. As my mother says gaily, “I’ve seen it all.”

Child of Adam, what have you done with your time? I regret the procrastinations and the sulking—the pique and the gaze at the greener grass across the fence. I regret the hurts hugged tight, the efforts begrudged, and the help I didn’t give. I am grateful for the flashes of light, the loves and wellbeing, dreams come true, the joy, the learning and all the beauty I came close to, colors I saw, special words I heard.

Time tricks us. It appears to spiral, twist or sometimes circle. It staggers and shudders, and then it accelerates, sweeps, and leapfrogs. In the space of a few months, not even a year, my daughter is born, my first novel is bought, my husband twists his ankle, my son starts a new school, my mother-in-law is buried. Other months and other years are bald in comparison, such a slow pace, unremarkable weeks, often serene.

Child of Adam, what have you done with your time? I dare not count all the food consumed, water drank, clothes bought and washed, toiletries, petrol, books—all the consumption just needed to survive. I have taken too much from this earth—been given and given.

Do I now feel my age? I am the same person I was ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago. But being able to claim these numbers, to witness all these changes, to account for all these years, makes me middle-aged, makes me no longer as young as I feel. Cousins my age are becoming widows. Schoolmates have taken early retirement. Friends have become grandmothers. My youngest started university, I no longer have anyone to take to the school gates, no teachers will call me in. It should be liberating. It is, but the fact remains—and it should not sound melodramatic or sad, only true—I have now less time to live.

My first novel is still in print, still taught and read. Its themes are even more relevant, its dynamics still fresh, but in significant ways, it is dated. It belongs to a time when mobile phones were not in use. Yet the phone conversations between the main characters are central to the plot, to the movement of the two characters towards each other. The phone conversations are some of my favorite parts of The Translator—at events and in readings I tend to choose them. But I can’t change these landlines into mobile phones. Not least because the author of that novel is no longer here, is no longer me. The novel belongs to my younger, hopeful self and I do not have direct access to her anymore. The novel belongs to a more innocent time.

Recently I came across a photo of my father. He is the same age I am now. I try to digest this fact, to make sense of it. He suddenly looks younger than I remember him to be, more cheerful. At the time the photo was taken, I had considered him ‘old’ and ‘set in his ways.’ That’s how I must appear to my children now: set and congealed, already developed, fully formed. I don’t blame them. I can remember too well when fifty seemed ancient, when forty seemed old. Even eighteen. I can remember when eighteen seemed grown-up and confident. Now only those older than me make me young. The more of them around, the more carefree I feel. I try and imagine a world in which I am one of the oldest, in which the vast majority of people are younger than me. It would be a world full of ghosts.


Feature image via Creative Commons. Additional photographs provided by Therese Mailhot.

Leila Aboulela, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, lives in Aberdeen. She is the author of four novels, The Kindness of Enemies, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, Minaret, and Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Her collection of short stories, Coloured Lights, was short-listed for the MacMillan Silver PEN Award. Leila grew up in Sudan and moved, in her mid-twenties, to Scotland. More from this author →