Afterwork by Michaela Keeble

“As UNHCR refugees the Syrians were entitled to try and bring family members to New Zealand under the family reunification scheme. The workload Miriam shared with four other part-time staff was building.”

Miriam got home from work, slipped her key into the lock and dropped her backpack on the floor before properly entering the small Newtown flat.

She took a few steps and reached the kitchen bench, pulled over a stool and sat down.

The door was open and she could hear the neighbour’s kids in the garden. One of them had a whistle and was blowing it like a professional – a referee, or a soldier. It was nearly 9pm and dusk light filtered through her windows, coming to rest on her sofa and across the rug that looked authentic but came cheap from the sale at Briscoes.

Miriam took the phone from her pocket and opened Facebook, began scrolling through news she didn’t really have the energy to read but felt she must. Aleppo.

At work they were already dealing with the first wave of Syrians – a third of the families who’d come through Mangere had been settled in Wellington. They’d hired new staff in anticipation.

She matched the blue tooth on her phone to a tiny speaker she’d bought off a friend. The quality of its sound was startling, like musicians were actually in the room. Her dad would have thought it was magic.

Miriam was a qualified lawyer, not that it mattered much. She could have been a musician, though she would have had to work a lot harder at it to get anywhere. Where would she be now if she’d been brave enough to stick with singing? Probably no worse off, maybe even a bit richer in the account of spiritual satisfaction. But she knew plenty of dissatisfied musos.

She scrolled through the music till she found the album she wanted. She got up from the kitchen table, closed the front door and lay down on the rug. She stared at the picture of the album on the screen: Aleppo’s ancient buildings intact, where Facebook had the city in ruins. She pressed play on her phone.

The sound from the depth of an oud begins with a hard edge and opens out into a field, horizon indecipherable in the distance. The close-set strings trigger a repeating pulse as if someone is tapping on your chest, asking to be let in.

When she was 13, Miriam’s dad gave her a cassette player. It had two tape decks and a way to record from one cassette across to the other. She taped her favourite lute solo end to end on both sides of a single cassette, the three-minute tune fitting neatly 10 times each side. She listened to it obsessively, switching the tape over and over, pressing down hard on the analogue buttons, sometimes fast-forwarding through the music to the final phrases of the song, which expressed – or maybe even created – intense feelings that seemed too adult to have to handle.

She was listening to that album now, though without skipping the early songs. She couldn’t believe it was available on Spotify, as if it were somehow equivalent to, an equal of, all that blond Americana. She gave the album her full attention, stretching out on the rug to create as much space inside her as possible.

The music provoked in her a landscape, a progression. It lifted her high on to the crest of a hill and left her cold, alone on dry ground. The journey seemed to repeat itself with only small variations, and she didn’t tire of it, and the journey didn’t tire of her. The sound filled her like liquid, expanding into parts of her body that had not heard real music for years.

The gravelly tune lifted her to her feet, and she moved in one direction then another, turning slightly, leaning into the pull she felt. She wasn’t dancing, but turning on the axis of herself, letting her body do the thinking, pressing pause on the clunky buttons of her tired mind.

She felt something in the cradle of the strings supporting her. It was a mutual listening, although the album was older than her and the oud player no longer alive. She was listening more carefully to these notes than to spoken words, and the notes were listening back, responding out of a discipline which seemed more spontaneous, more expressive, than speech.

The music stripped her of layers, addressing and discarding each in turn. She took off her skin as a soldier steps out of uniform, and the classical guitar whistled through her bones like wind. It hummed, and described to Miriam her childhood, her parents, the books that she had read, the region in her back which required more armour than her chest or head. The music kept her sore but soothed at the same time, allowing her slightly to unravel. She felt the hardness she wore in daylight softening and becoming pliable.

The oud was born in Mesopotamia. Maybe even Aleppo itself. Who among her clients were musicians? Why didn’t she know?  She’d read that musicians and music teachers in particular were being expelled – but what can you trust on the internet? If the U.S. and Soviet jets dropped guitars not bombs, if New Zealanders listened to any other music but pop, if she trained as a musician not a lawyer… Then what? She was missing home.

As the final track began her anxiety began to kick back in. The music made her nervous, correcting her, but not like a bully to a victim. It corrected, driving towards something cleaner, more true. It muttered about the past, and the future, but she couldn’t understand its message.

She wasn’t even sure the Syrians should be getting this fast track into New Zealand. Their situation was really no worse than for their clients from Yemen, or Myanmar. That is to say, all her clients were running for their lives. Not that, if she were in charge, she’d turn the Syrians away. She’d just let everyone in. Of course.

Through the rest the night, through the early hours of the morning until the first demented tui start crying in the garden, Miriam slept on the hard rug, her sleep a kind of hallucinatory drifting that never sunk into restoration.