09/23/2021

Sandra Arnold ~ I’ll Get Back to You

Sign here, Sandra. It includes every­thing we agreed on before you left New Zealand.” Hussein, the CEO, slid the con­tract across his desk.

Thanks. I’ll have it back to you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? Don’t you trust me?”

I glanced at the print-out then drew a dia­gram to clar­i­fy, yet again, the hol­i­day pay, salary, and gra­tu­ity to be paid at the con­clu­sion of my twelve-month contract.

He sighed. “Okay, just tell me what to write!”

Change ‘Single air tick­et paid back to coun­try of ori­gin on con­clu­sion of con­tract’ to ‘Refund for sin­gle air tick­et…’ con­sid­er­ing I’ve already paid for my own tickets.”

But Sandra, of course we will refund you. We’ve already agreed to that.”

A week lat­er he burst into my class­room to tell me to go to the Police Station to have my fin­ger­prints tak­en. “For your Labour Card.”

Outside the  Police Station the PRO of the com­pa­ny was wait­ing. He escort­ed me into a room with ‘Ladies Only’ on the door and wait­ed while a tac­i­turn police­woman in a black abaya took my fin­ger­prints. The next day the school dri­ver dropped me off at the hos­pi­tal for a blood test. He dis­ap­peared, leav­ing me to nav­i­gate the Arabic signs, the cor­ri­dors, the queues of Indian migrant work­ers, and the blood test, on my own.

After three more weeks Hussein hand­ed me my Labour Card – with the wrong blood group on it. As I need­ed this card to open a bank account, buy a car, a mobile phone, have a land­line installed in my flat, get the inter­net con­nect­ed, a road per­mit to dri­ve to the UAE, and an alco­hol license, I decid­ed the B+ could stay.

Six weeks lat­er he rang to say he had all the doc­u­ments ready for my Alcohol License and that I was to come to the school imme­di­ate­ly to pick them up. We were just about to leave the flat when two men arrived to install the air-con­di­tion­er in the kitchen. Half an hour lat­er Hussein rang to ask where we were. “The Police Station will be closed soon,” he wailed. “You’d bet­ter hur­ry or you won’t get your alco­hol till after the weekend.”

The alco­hol can wait,” I said. “I’m more con­cerned about the delays in final­is­ing my con­tract and Chris’s visa.”

Sandra! I’m work­ing very hard on these things.”

So when will they be ready?”

I’ll get back to you.”

At the Police Station I hand­ed over two kilo­grams of forms which detailed my nation­al­i­ty, reli­gion, gen­der, age, coun­try of birth, aca­d­e­m­ic qual­i­fi­ca­tions, length of my con­tract, salary, address, phone num­ber, the school’s address and phone num­ber and a pile of notarised sig­na­tures to ver­i­fy the lan­guage school was a bona fide com­pa­ny and the CEO’s sig­na­ture was gen­uine. After scru­ti­n­is­ing the doc­u­ments, which were also writ­ten in Arabic, and sign­ing and stamp­ing every­thing, the police­man asked me for the equiv­a­lent of $250 to pay for the license, which looked like a pass­port, com­plete with my pho­to. It stat­ed that each time I bought alco­hol the license would be stamped and I could buy up to the val­ue of 10% of my salary, per month.

We returned to the flat to find a gap­ing hole in the wall around the new air-con­di­tion­er. I rang the man­ag­er of the apart­ment to ask when this would be filled.

No prob­lem madam. Bukrah, inshal­lah. Tomorrow, if God wills.”

A week lat­er the hole was still there and Chris con­fessed he’d seen three giant cock­roach­es march­ing across the kitchen floor.

Just leave it with me, Sandra,” said Hussein. “And I’ll get back to you.”

The end of the week came and went.

Getting per­mis­sion for a land­line and inter­net con­nec­tion neces­si­tat­ed tak­ing a  truck load of doc­u­ments to the Omantel office, only to be told they weren’t ade­quate because not only did my sig­na­ture need to be notarised, so did all the doc­u­ments of the school, includ­ing the CEO’s sig­na­ture. The offi­cial wrote a note in Arabic to Hussein telling him what extra doc­u­men­ta­tion was required. A cou­ple of days lat­er back I went with all the papers to a dif­fer­ent Omantel office. The offi­cial glared at the pile of papers and said no this wouldn’t do at all. He need­ed the ORIGINAL doc­u­ments, not pho­to­copies then he could per­son­al­ly pho­to­copy them on the Omantel pho­to­copi­er which Madam could see behind him. Madam gath­ered up the offend­ing doc­u­ments and left the office. We got into the car and drove to the first Omantel office, found the offi­cial who’d writ­ten the note in Arabic, spread the pho­to­copies down in front of him and wait­ed with bait­ed breath. He smiled, signed and stamped them and we got per­mis­sion to have a phone.

The date the phone was due to be installed came and went.

Several calls to the office over the next few weeks met with a calm, “Bukrah, inshal­lah.” God willed the phone to be installed even­tu­al­ly, but the line didn’t work so we couldn’t get the internet.

After more weeks of “We’ll get back to you,” I asked Hussein what to do about the Communications Company who didn’t com­mu­ni­cate. He promised to sort it out. Next day he assured me, with his hand on his heart, that he had this under con­trol and was work­ing very hard on it. He had not only been to see the man­ag­er, he said, he had also phoned the land­lord of the apart­ment build­ing and they had agreed to go to my flat at the end of the week and test the lines. I asked him if they would ring me before they came.

Of course they will ring you, Sandra! Otherwise how would they know if you were in or not?”

The end of the week came and went.

On Friday morn­ing, Jacob, the care­tak­er, turned up with a lad­der, a pile of stones and plas­ter, to block the hole in the wall.  We sug­gest­ed he wait till the men came to do the wiring and they could also remove the air conditioner.

Oh, they’ve been twice in the last two days,” he said cheer­ful­ly, “but you weren’t home.”

At 7.00 on Saturday morn­ing he turned up at the door with the men. That left only the prob­lem of try­ing to get Omantel to con­nect the new wiring to the phone.

Next morn­ing one of the Omantel engi­neers rang to say the lines were connected.

It’s all fin­ished. The line is connected.”

No it isn’t, the cable hasn’t been connected.”

Yes, it has, the men fixed it yesterday.”

No. The elec­tri­cians changed the wiring. They didn’t con­nect it to the phone line.”

Mmmm. I’ll get back to you.”

A week lat­er Chris rang the man­ag­er. “When are the men com­ing to con­nect the cable?”

Bukrah, inshal­lah.”

Two weeks lat­er Chris asked him where the men were. He said he’d get back to us.

More weeks went by. Finally, I rang and found he was in a meet­ing. Then away hav­ing his lunch. When I final­ly nabbed him he was very apolo­getic; said it was ludi­crous we’d been wait­ing three months for a con­nec­tion and he would send peo­ple out next morn­ing and tell them they had to find the prob­lem and fix it. They came out and decid­ed the prob­lem might be that our modem was too advanced for their sys­tem. Next day some­one came out with an exter­nal modem to try it, but it didn’t fit, so he said he’d go back and find one that did fit and then get back to us.

Another engi­neer came out and con­fessed he was com­plete­ly stumped and had no idea why the inter­net wouldn’t work. “However, I’m talk­ing to oth­er peo­ple and they are work­ing on find­ing a solution.”

I told him a very sim­ple solu­tion would be to just give us anoth­er phone line.

Mrs Sandra has just giv­en me a good idea,” he said. “However, there’ll be some paper works first, some depart­ments to get per­mis­sions from.”

I asked how long that would take. He said when he knew that he would get back to me. “And it will be the truth because we are not allowed to lie dur­ing Ramadan.”

The engi­neer had to go away for the week­end, but promised to con­tact us when he got back. He didn’t, so Chris rang him, but he was in a meet­ing. He promised to ring back. He didn’t. Chris rang back the next morn­ing and he said that he was no longer on the case as it had been trans­ferred back to the orig­i­nal pair of engi­neers. I rang his man­ag­er. It was time for los­ing cool. When I paused for breath he said he would ring the two men con­cerned and “expe­dite the mat­ter”, and “get back to you.” Naturally he didn’t and when I tried to ring him again he didn’t answer the phone.

Later that day anoth­er engi­neer, who had orig­i­nal­ly been on the case, rang me and said he had been “hor­ri­fied” to find that three months lat­er our prob­lem had not yet been solved, but he per­son­al­ly would solve it and get back to us. I asked him to say exact­ly what he intend­ed to do and he said that as every­thing had been test­ed and noth­ing was found to be at fault the only con­clu­sion he could come to was that it was the exchange. “So we will give you a new phone line and get back to you today, inshal­lah.”

We knew then it real­ly was the end of the line for the phone line. But God had oth­er plans.

The men are installing the new line as we speak,” the engi­neer shout­ed down the cell phone.

When we got back to the flat Chris switched on the com­put­er and to our amaze­ment there was the inter­net. Minutes lat­er the engi­neer rang. “Mrs Sandra. Mr Chris. Thanks be to God, I have solved your prob­lem for you!”

We told him we were immense­ly grate­ful, both to God and to him.

Next morn­ing I remind­ed Hussein that the exten­sion on Chris’s visitor’s visa was about to run out.

Sandra, I am work­ing on this.”

But there’s a hefty fine on over-stayers.”

He brought his palms to his shoul­ders. “We will pay the fine. If Chris has to leave the coun­try to re-enter on a new visitor’s visa we will pay his air­fare to Dubai. You can go with him. I’ll give you time off work. This is the company’s prob­lem and we will fix it.”

The day the visa expired he told Chris he had to fly to Dubai that evening. Phillipe, the Director of Studies told him to autho­rise Chris’s air tick­et. We walked into the office as this con­ver­sa­tion was going on. He hand­ed Chris the phone.

Pay your air tick­et?” squeaked the voice over the receiv­er. “Where did you get that idea?”

Hang on! You said …”

That we would try to help you with your visa problems…”

Help me with…?”

…but with this atti­tude it seems you are very ungrateful…”

When we picked pieces of Chris off the walls and reassem­bled him he had only two hours to get his tick­et to Dubai.

The DOS sighed. “Welcome to the Middle East.” He explained that Hussein had prob­a­bly been over-ruled by the Sheik who owned the school and didn’t want to lose face by admit­ting it.

While Chris was in Dubai wait­ing in the air­port for a flight back to Oman, I stood by the win­dow of our flat, look­ing at the clus­ter of white, flat-roofed hous­es that snaked up the hill towards the moun­tains. Washing was dry­ing on lines on some of the roof-tops. Sand-cov­ered satel­lite dish­es were vis­i­ble on oth­ers. A cou­ple of street clean­ers were sweep­ing up the plas­tic bot­tles and lit­ter that was deposit­ed dai­ly on the streets. There was no grass vis­i­ble in the neigh­bour­hood, just dusty, sand-coloured earth along the sides of the high-walled, dilap­i­dat­ed hous­es. From my win­dow I could see inside some of the cracked con­crete yards behind the high walls. This year away from every­thing famil­iar was meant to help us re-assem­ble all our bro­ken bits after our daugh­ter, Rebecca, died, but I felt like Alice, falling down the rab­bit hole.

Finally we made it to the alco­hol store. This was at the back of a shop­ping cen­tre, with all the win­dows paint­ed over. Above the door were two signs: Retail Outlet and Only pass hold­ers may enter these premis­es. Inside, the Indian man­ag­er wel­comed us, assured me he would look after us very well and thanked us for choos­ing his shop. He point­ed out the wide range of wines and all the bar­gains. An assis­tant car­ried our pur­chas­es to our car. My Alcohol License stat­ed that we must trans­port the alco­hol, under cov­er, direct­ly to our home. If it was vis­i­ble we would be stopped by police and fined. If we weren’t able to take it straight home we had to keep the receipt handy to prove we’d just bought it. At last, we stag­gered up the stairs to our flat, try­ing not to clink the bottles.

The flat the com­pa­ny had pro­vid­ed was locat­ed in the cheap­est part of town, which was very dirty, noisy, and choked with traf­fic. After the school hol­i­days end­ed the chil­dren returned to the school across the road. At 7.00 one morn­ing we were wrenched out of sleep by the Omani National Anthem threat­en­ing to demol­ish the walls of our bed­room. This was fol­lowed by half an hour of  Koran read­ings screamed into a micro­phone by the school prin­ci­pal and sev­er­al chil­dren and blast­ed over the entire neigh­bour­hood on loud­speak­ers turned up to brain-melt­ing vol­ume. At 8.00am, the chil­dren marched back to their class­rooms to the tune of Colonel Bogey.

I asked Hussein to find us anoth­er flat. With his hand across his heart he expressed his sor­row that this was impos­si­ble as he’d signed the lease for a whole year.

You could, of course, sim­ply ask the prin­ci­pal to turn the vol­ume down,” he suggested.

I stared at him. “You’re jok­ing, right?”

After try­ing ear-plugs to drown out the rack­et I decid­ed it was less painful to go to work.

At school the stu­dents com­plained they couldn’t under­stand the new recep­tion­ist. She spoke only Swahili, they said. The teach­ers told Hussein he need­ed to get a new receptionist.

No! Omani law states we must employ an Omani receptionist.”

But she is an Omani from Zanzibar. We need one who speaks Arabic and English.”

Teach her English then.”

She also dis­ap­pears into the prayer room and falls asleep, leav­ing no one at the desk.”

I’ll tell her she has to make sure some­one is at the desk when she takes her breaks.”

Next morn­ing there was the Indian clean­er stand­ing behind the recep­tion desk, his damp grey clean­ing rag slung over his shoulder.

Back to Hussein.

He’s a love­ly man. He brings us jas­mine every morn­ing, but…”

Well the clean­ers know they aren’t allowed to answer the phone.”

But he can’t speak Arabic or English either. Just Hindi.”

Leave it with me.”

How about just employ­ing a recep­tion­ist who can speak English.”

I am the CEO! Don’t tell me how to do my job!”

Four months after he’d promised to send the let­ter he’d writ­ten guar­an­tee­ing the con­di­tions of my con­tract to the Sheik it still hadn’t been done and that after­noon he was about to leave the coun­try for a month’s vaca­tion. “It isn’t actu­al­ly nec­es­sary for the Sheik to sign it, Sandra. I am a sig­na­to­ry of this company.”

You know as well as I do that unless the Sheik’s sig­na­ture is on a doc­u­ment it’s not legal.”

It will be signed and on your desk this after­noon, before I leave”

It wasn’t, of course, so I asked the company’s accoun­tant, Mahmoud, to come to the school to see me. He said he’d nev­er seen any such let­ter. Not only that, the Sheik had not signed my contract.

In that case, whose sig­na­ture is on the contract?”

He breathed deeply then asked me to send a copy of the con­tract so he could check out the sig­na­ture. “But Mrs Sandra, why are you claim­ing a refund on your air­fare back to New Zealand?   Hussein told me you wouldn’t claim the air­fare to New Zealand.”

What?”

He said you wouldn’t claim the return por­tion because you’d already paid for your flights as part of a round-the-world tick­et. You’re going on a hol­i­day to Brazil and the USA when your con­tract expires, yes?”

I’m not expect­ing you to pay for the trip to Brazil. Just to refund the cost of the fare from Oman back to New Zealand.”

The com­pa­ny doesn’t give refunds,” he said. “Only tick­ets. We can give you a tick­et at 50% dis­count of the full fare.”

Hussein gave me a refund of my fare from New Zealand to Oman,” I said, “and at the end of my con­tract I want him to refund the por­tion of my tick­et from Oman to New Zealand, as my con­tract states.”

Mahmoud’s frown deep­ened. “He had no right to give you a refund,” he said. “We don’t give refunds. Only tick­ets. I have his let­ter in my office. It states you agreed not to claim your return air­fare. He signed it. I can show you if you like.”

Is my sig­na­ture on that letter?”

No, but Hussein’s is.”

Why would I agree to not claim­ing my return air­fare when it is in my con­tract, which sup­pos­ed­ly has been signed by the Sheik?”

Sweat dripped down his neck. “Mrs Sandra, send me the con­tract and all your doc­u­ments by fax and I’ll get back to you.”

Next morn­ing I sent a twelve-page fax. A week lat­er when he final­ly answered my call he said he was wait­ing for Hussein to return so we could all have a meet­ing with the Sheik. “I’ll get back to you with the time of the meet­ing,” he assured.

The meet­ing didn’t mate­ri­alise. Neither did Chris’s visa. The doc­u­ments were returned from the Ministry of Immigration and reject­ed on the grounds “Man can bring wife. Woman can not bring hus­band.” Hussein said he was try­ing to arrange an appoint­ment with the Minister to “find a way round this.” The appoint­ment didn’t mate­ri­alise either.

Chris was asked to teach a Master of Engineering course at Sultan Qaboos University and a tem­po­rary work visa was arranged for him there. We flew to Dubai ear­ly on a Wednesday morn­ing and at the air­port Chris faxed a copy of the exit stamp back to the PRO at the uni­ver­si­ty. The PRO told him the visa would be ready on Saturday after­noon “… inshal­lah”. We were very ner­vous in case God was extra busy with visas that week­end and Chris might end up stay­ing in Dubai for sev­er­al days, or weeks, or months, or years, or the rest of his life. However, to our sur­prise it was ready when it was sup­posed to be.

Hussein had assured us before he left the coun­try that he had booked a plane tick­et and hotel for the teacher we were expect­ing from Australia. Leaving noth­ing to chance I rang Head Office to ask when we could expect him.

What tick­et? What teacher?”

Stifling a scream I said, “We have new class­es start­ing and no teacher. Get him here ASAP.”

Martin, the teacher, was whisked from Australia to Oman in a flash. When he arrived at school he told us he had almost not got here because the e‑mail from Head Office didn’t actu­al­ly state where it was from and he delet­ed it. Fortunately it had also been sent to his father who phoned him to tell him he had to get on a plane the next day. I told him he could have a few hours sleep before his class start­ed that evening.

Two days lat­er Martin was beat­en up at a par­ty by an American marine, after say­ing some­thing unflat­ter­ing about President Bush. As the teach­ers were eas­ing him into a car next morn­ing to take him to hos­pi­tal a reporter from the local news­pa­per turned up and demand­ed an inter­view about the English pro­grammes the school was offer­ing. I explained the DOS and the CEO were over­seas and sug­gest­ed she come back in a cou­ple of weeks, after mak­ing an appointment.

I have my arti­cle almost com­plet­ed,” she wailed. “I only need to ask you a cou­ple of questions.”

An hour lat­er she was still talk­ing and scrib­bling, but it kept my mind of Martin’s smashed face and the con­se­quences if one of those kicks had land­ed a few cen­time­tres near­er his tem­ple. The next day a memo arrived from the Sheik stat­ing the com­pa­ny would not pay for Martin’s med­ical treat­ment as “alco­hol was involved.”

The week­end before the Islamic New Year we vis­it­ed archae­o­log­i­cal sites with the Historical Society. Other peo­ple in our group dis­cussed whether or not Saturday or Sunday would be the New Year’s Day hol­i­day. The Islamic New Year is based on the cycles of the moon. A com­mit­tee with­in one of the Ministries –  The Committee of Moon Sightings – had to per­son­al­ly view the new moon before the New Year could be announced. However, my stu­dents said they were sure the New Year would be Saturday and they were all going home to their vil­lages then and would come back to school on Sunday. At mid­night on Friday we were wok­en by the phone ring­ing. It was Phillipe to say Hussein had told him that the moon had not yet been sight­ed so all the teach­ers had to come to work on Saturday, even though there would be no students.

It took many frus­trat­ing months to get the threads of our lives con­nect­ed in Oman, but in the end these strands became a new kind of nor­mal. Chris was less san­guine, but I had no regrets about stay­ing. The year had ful­filled its pur­pose. Soon it was time to start the process of unravelling.

First we went to the insur­ance office to trans­fer the insur­ance of our car to the two col­leagues who were buy­ing it. Then we drove to the Police Station to com­plete the trans­fer of own­er­ship. On the way I com­ment­ed that I was relieved we had not had a car acci­dent. We had nev­er become used to see­ing man­gled cars on the side of the road and the occa­sion­al dead body. An ambu­lance ser­vice had been launched that year and the ambu­lances were sta­tioned at var­i­ous trou­ble spots along the roads. However, as the hard shoul­ders were often clogged with speed­ing dri­vers, the ambu­lances couldn’t always get to the scene of an acci­dent in time.

We were dis­cussing this when a Landcruiser came charg­ing round the round­about into the side of our car. We tum­bled out, speech­less. The Emiratis in the Landcruiser shook our hands then called the Police. At the Police Station the police­men, who spoke no English, wrote out the report based on what the Emiratis told them and indi­cat­ed the acci­dent was our fault. They said the Emiratis want­ed us to pay them some mon­ey or they would take us to court. At that point I called an Omani friend and in half an hour he arrived. He asked the Emiratis why they want­ed mon­ey from us when we already had com­pre­hen­sive insur­ance. They looked sur­prised and said the Police hadn’t told them. They shook hands again and left. The police­man told us to come back next day to col­lect the report for the insur­ance company.

Next day we trooped back to the Police Station. No one had writ­ten the report. Fortunately, there was a Police Inspector there who spoke good English so he got it sort­ed out. He also told us the oth­er dri­ver was to blame as he was going too fast and he would be fined.

With just two weeks left I still didn’t know whether the com­pa­ny would refund my air­fare home. On the day of my stu­dents’ grad­u­a­tion, Hussein, with his hand over his heart made an emo­tion­al speech about what a great teacher I was. The stu­dents clapped and pre­sent­ed me with gifts: a beau­ti­ful wood­en box engraved with my name and the dates of the course, con­tain­ing a sil­ver and amber Bedouin neck­lace and a piece of weav­ing. Amina gave me a lit­tle box with a gold emblem of Oman. In tears, she asked if she could kiss me. As the oth­er women came up to kiss me the male stu­dents stood dis­creet­ly at the back of the room. They stayed there while I went out­side to be pho­tographed with the women. As we arranged our­selves in front of the school Amina put her mask back over her face and apol­o­gised that she could not join us in the pho­tographs. “But I will send you a pho­to of my son,” she whispered.

As the men came out to be pho­tographed with me, Nagwa, Hussein’s assis­tant who was tak­ing the pho­tographs, told me to wait behind after the men returned to the library.

Take my advice,” she said. “Do not leave Oman before they pay you or you won’t see a cent.”

I stared at her.

I heard Hussein on the phone talk­ing to Mahmoud. He has a let­ter for you. I think he’ll give it to you before he leaves for Egypt. I dare not say more.”

Next morn­ing Phillipe gave me Hussein’s let­ter. But by then he had scarpered. The let­ter stat­ed the com­pa­ny would pay my final month’s salary, hol­i­day pay and gra­tu­ity, but not refund my air­fare as “it is com­pa­ny pol­i­cy to only give tickets.”

Phillipe avert­ed his eyes. “I’ve done the best I could,” he mut­tered. “I did tell you to accept the sheik’s offer of a 50% dis­count on the ticket.”

It was time to saw this issue off the end of the uni­verse. When I had arrived at the school a year ear­li­er, one of the teach­ers dis­cov­ered, the day before she left Oman, that her six months’ over­time pay was not includ­ed in her final pay­ment. I now recalled the mem­o­ry of this woman froth­ing at the mouth with impo­tent rage. I rang Mahmoud and asked him to pay my final salary a week before I left.

Of course, Mrs Sandra. No problem.”

My col­league, Kass, rolled her eyes. “Don’t believe him.”

On the day the pay­ment was due, Phillipe stuck his head around the door of my office as I was pack­ing up files and teach­ing notes. He said Mahmoud had just been on the phone to say he didn’t have any cheques signed by the sheik. Mahmoud had also point­ed out, Phillipe said, that although my course with the Ministry of Higher Education was fin­ished and my stu­dents had gone, I was still offi­cial­ly under con­tract so I need­ed to do more teach­ing and Mahmoud had sug­gest­ed I take over the evening class­es. What did I think?

What I thought was to stuff Phillipe in my car and dri­ve with him and Kass across town to Head Office, ignor­ing Phillipe’s protests that while he could under­stand I was upset, he was sure his own pres­ence was not real­ly required and that this sit­u­a­tion could have been avert­ed had I accept­ed the Sheik’s gen­er­ous offer of 50% of the return air­fare in the first place. No doubt, Kass had influ­enced me to hold out for more, he said, ignor­ing Kass’s glare, but I must sure­ly realise all this con­fronta­tion would get me nowhere. Had my year in the Gulf taught me noth­ing? And in the event of a melt­down at Head Office, he, Phillipe, could not inter­vene. After all, he still had to work here and these guys could make his life unbear­able and after all it was only money.

Mahmoud was sit­ting in his chair behind his desk with a smile past­ed on his face. He pro­duced the book of blank cheques and smiled again. He would send a dri­ver to the town where the sheik was stay­ing and get him to sign a cheque and then the dri­ver would return. The cheque might be in my account on Thursday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday. Anyway, some­time soon. Inshallah.

So why can’t you just give it to me in cash?”

Unfortunately I do not have the cash.”

You’re telling me that despite this com­pa­ny own­ing hotels and trav­el agen­cies, you don’t have enough cash to pay me.”

That’s cor­rect.”

In that case,” I said, “Chris will fly to Brazil alone for our friend’s wed­ding and I will stay in Oman by myself until all the mon­ey is in the bank. Until it is, I will with­hold my end-of-course reports for the Ministry of Higher Education and I’ll need to send an e‑mail to every stu­dent and the Ministry to explain why.”

Mahmoud’s smile frayed round the edges as he weighed up the odds that I was bluff­ing. Phillipe’s sharp intake of breath con­vinced him oth­er­wise. With his smirk now a straight line he opened a draw­er and pulled out some cash. Then picked up the phone and asked for the bal­ance to be brought over that evening.

It will be in your account in the morning.”

Good.”

He could bare­ly con­tain his annoy­ance. “When you leave Oman the PRO must accom­pa­ny you to the air­port to can­cel your visa. You must give him your Labour Card.”

Of course.”

And your Alcohol Licence.”

Naturally.”

And you will need to teach evening class­es next week.”

No prob­lem.”

And Ahmed will need to inspect your flat.”

Because…”

Because you might have bro­ken some­thing.” His com­po­sure was return­ing. “When are you leav­ing? In a week, you said?”

I’ll check the date and time of the flight and let you know.”

Next morn­ing ten min­utes before the bank was due to close for the week­end I watched Mahmoud hand over the cash, minus my return air­fare, to the teller. Then I trans­ferred the mon­ey to New Zealand while he looked on. Before he left he said, “Ahmed will be doing his inspec­tion after the week­end, so make sure you leave the flat clean.”

Absolutely,” I smiled.

We went back to the flat and packed our cas­es. Early next morn­ing my three col­leagues took us to the air­port. Before we board­ed I said to them, “You showed me how to laugh again. I’ll always be grate­ful to you for that.”

Kass hugged me. “I’ll be leav­ing this place soon. I’ll find myself a place in the world with four sea­sons and things to look for­ward to.”

Forget all this crap,” said Rupert.

But don’t for­get us,” said Janey. “And all our good times.”

 

Oman. Brazil. The USA. New Zealand. Deserts. Oceans. Mountains. Rivers. Forests. Plains. Cities. Roads.

 

Our city. Our road. Our house. Our gar­den. Our daughter’s cats on the front step, dis­dain­ful and unfor­giv­ing of our deser­tion. They are round and fat. Melanie, our neigh­bour, has tak­en good care of them. The dog, dis­be­liev­ing at first, then all ecsta­t­ic legs and tail.

Chris opens our front door and we car­ry our cas­es in. Everything is the same and every­thing is dif­fer­ent. Melanie has lived here with her chil­dren for a whole year. The liv­ing room has a dif­fer­ent smell. A dif­fer­ent kind of ener­gy. I go to Rebecca’s room. Chris fol­lows. The books and pens and oil pas­tel sketch­es on her desk are exact­ly as we left them a year ago. Her clothes still hang in her cup­board, unused. I touch them with my hand. And hold the sleeve of her jack­et to see if it still has her smell. It doesn’t. Her cal­en­dar is still on April, the month she died. Her room is silent. We’ve been away for a whole year and come back again. But our daugh­ter is still dead. “She’ll always be dead,” I say to Chris. He stands behind me and puts his arms around my shoul­ders. From the win­dow we can see the rowan tree where we buried her ash­es. It has reached the top of the fence.

Next morn­ing I open an email from Kass. My cir­cum­vent­ing the depar­ture pro­ce­dure had result­ed in Kass hav­ing to bear the brunt of Hussein’s fury. He told her he would not pay her final month’s salary, nor was she to be allowed to leave the coun­try to go on her planned hol­i­day to Venice. If she attempt­ed to leave, he threat­ened, she would be list­ed as an abscon­der and arrest­ed. She went to the British Embassy which informed him oth­er­wise. She left the com­pa­ny and the coun­try and flew to a new job in Greece. His last act of vengeance was to with­hold her salary until she was at the air­line check-in counter.  Two oth­er col­leagues were refused the let­ter of release they need­ed to take up a lucra­tive job with anoth­er com­pa­ny in Oman. They left for Thailand.

The next email was from Phillipe, demand­ing the imme­di­ate return of my Labour Card. The Ministry would not allow the com­pa­ny to employ anoth­er teacher until the Labour Card was returned.  As I read it I thought I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when Mahmoud, Hussein and the Sheik received their roast­ing from the Ministry. Leaving a week ear­ly like that was a breach of my con­tract, Phillipe thun­dered. Leaving with­out telling him was very unpro­fes­sion­al and would make it dif­fi­cult for him to con­vince the com­pa­nies to pay oth­er teach­ers at the end of their con­tracts. I should be mind­ful of my respon­si­bil­i­ty to him espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the amount of time he had devot­ed to my con­trac­tu­al issues and nor should I for­get how he had sup­port­ed me in Mahmoud’s office and there­fore I owed it to him to con­tact a couri­er forth­with and return the Labour Card with­out fur­ther delay.

I pon­der on the best response. Ah yes.

Of course, Phillipe. I’ll get back to you, inshal­lah.”

Then I write a reply to Amina’s email. I tell her the pho­to of her baby is beau­ti­ful. And yes, I do think he looks like her. And yes, the flower she drew on my wrist is still there, though after four weeks the hen­na has start­ed to fade a lit­tle. And no, I won’t for­get her. And yes, I’m hap­py to be home.

~

Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books includ­ing three nov­els, a non-fic­tion work and a col­lec­tion of flash fic­tion.  Her work has been wide­ly pub­lished inter­na­tion­al­ly, placed and short-list­ed in var­i­ous com­pe­ti­tions and nom­i­nat­ed for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfictions and The Best Small Fictions.