On World Refugee Day, youmanity has the honour of publishing an original short written by Gavin Ritchie . 'A Short History of Coat-Giving' provides the perspective of an anxious western heart.
A Short History of Coat-Giving
Tariq hasn’t spoken, yet, and he won’t hold my hand crossing dangerous roads. I’m told it takes time. When I talk to him it is slow, deliberate, and elementary; I wonder if he thinks English isn’t swift enough to hold in its hands the terrible beauty or the vertiginous anguish Arabic can. As for crossing roads, we’re all right. We are.
Tariq means ‘he who pounds on the door.’ I looked it up. Funny I should remember it now. He who pounds on the door. I imagined something more divine, to be honest, but now, well, he suits it.
The word spatula confused him. He knew bullet, though. His confused little face; his frown. He stood there in the coat he’s so far refused to take off. Even through the night, when he slept; it had to be in beside him*. I pointed out, in the kitchen, that this bullet was for juicing vegetables and that it was just called bullet because, well, never mind, I said. There are places, places in his memory, I really didn’t want to go. Then I started misplacing things.
So, I decided: we’d go to the park.
* In her seminal anthropological text, Humanity’s Anomia: Struggling with Angels (Chicago: Labyrinth Press, 1989), Professor Jamieson Twigg catalogues the fourteen ritualistic functions of coat-giving:
- Coats given as rites of passage,
- Coats given as means of disguise,
- Coats given for the purpose of collecting bullet casings,
- Coats given as emblems of faith,
- Coats given as much in jealousy as in love,
- Coats given at three minutes past the hour,
- Coats given as a means of identification in a crowd, or at distance,
- Coats given by strangers,
- Coats given for no reason at all,
- Coats given because the men in the room are greatly stressed,
- Coats given in the reigning theoretical paradigms and all the paradigms yet to be named,
- Coats given for expressed reasons, e.g. because you’re shivering, because you don’t look well,
- Coats given then quickly taken back,
- Coats given while a couple scream at each other because their daughter is missing.
I felt the way you do when you carry something precious outside the first time, something you’ve got to keep safe, something so prized in the world it shines and everyone sees it, can see you’re holding it close and they want it for themselves and the only reason they wouldn’t dream of taking it is they can see it shine in your face, too, and it’d be a horror to separate you from it and if they did they’d never be human again.
People looked at me; they stared at Tariq in his big coat. It covered his knees. Every now and then, he’d bury his nose in the wool collar; he’d press the dark, long sleeve into his cheek. When he went into his little bubble, he wouldn’t hear me; I just had to let him get over it, get through it.
How Tariq tells me he understands a word is he points at my mouth and then at his temple. The way he does it, I picture my words vanishing into his little head. He does this a lot more for concrete things than for abstract words, like yesterday, age, war. We do a lot of pointing.
The ice cream van, the trees, the birds, all fascinated Tariq. I pointed; he pointed. I said van, squirrel, sycamore, silver birch, pigeon.
Tariq looked at the object, at my mouth, and took the word, the thing, in with his fierce dark eyes. He’d follow my finger to the tree, to its bark, its height, its leaves. He’d gaze at my lips when I’d say, for instance, silver birch. I’d say it again. Then, all magic - his finger emerging from his long coat sleeve, his pink finger end, a nubbin from the darkness – his brows would tighten, and he’d move his finger through the air, turning the word into a phantom he could pull across the gulf between us. It was as if he had silver birch in a tractor beam. He drew it across and sent it to live in his head.
The squirrel we saw was fast, was there one minute, gone the next. The ice cream van went off to somewhere new.
Once around the park, Tariq and I were back where we started. It looked the same as it had before, except for the silver birch. It wasn’t there. I went closer, went right over to where it had been, where it had always been. The ground was undisturbed. They hadn’t – the council – come and pulled the tree out, I thought. Why would they?
It bothered me for a minute.
At the main road again, daylight dying, the traffic was louder, angrier, its impatience had grown. Tariq, love, I said, Tariq? I showed him my hand. I asked him nicely and he smiled, but he kept his hands in the pockets of his coat. His smile was one of those where the eyes faint together, all apology. He stood closer to me so his shoulder bumped into my leg.
When we crossed the road, I put an arm around him, resting a hand on his other shoulder. I felt shielded from the traffic.
My house was dark, empty; I pointed, home, I said. Tariq’s stare softened when he put it inside his head. He was still leaning into me when I slid the key into the door. Nothing turned; I must have locked us out. So, I phoned for help – it’s what we do here – then took Tariq back to the park, where we stayed a while.
We lay on the grass next to the place where the silver birch had been and gaped at the stars. The cosmos twitched on a knife-edge. Stars faded; most came back.
Neither of us said a word.
Gavin Ritchie is a graduate of the Edinburgh Napier Creative Writing MA; he has written journalism, flash fiction and poetry for, amongst others, The Arts Journal, Reflex Fiction, Fractured West, Flash Fiction World, and Voices Along the Road. His first novel is set in a city state in northern Europe in 2065 and is in its final edit. He also teaches English.