Something was burning. Wendy didn’t get up, even when a wail drifted into her bedroom with the smoke. She sat on her duvet with her legs tucked to the side under her checkered skirts, absently pulling at her chestnut ponytail and reading a shabby copy of One Thousand and One Nights. She could smell, but not see the smoke as it floated in and settled down onto her oak chest of drawers, onto the yellow cardigan hanging from the closet doors and the little stuffed dog on the bed next to her. It pegged onto the mint green wallpaper like very tired person leaning up against a wall
From elsewhere in the house there was a clatter, a splash of water, a sizzle. The smell of smoke grew thicker, but Wendy kept her head over the book. She was fighting the compulsion to get up and go out of her room.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear wafted into her room, and as Wendy turned a page she noted with derision that the words weren’t getting past her eyes. Hating every move she made, she closed the book, put it next to the dog, and got off the bed. The brass bed frame thrummed when her leg grazed it, like it always did.
She let the smoke lead her to the kitchen, where the sink was billowing like a locomotive chimney, and her mother was flapping her hands towards the open window. The wallpaper in the kitchen was mint green also, and patterned with designs that curled in on themselves and fought against the busy patterns of the rugs and upholstered sofas.
“Everything okay, Mum?” asked Wendy with practiced concern. Her mother wiped her hands on her burgundy dress and turned away from the sink. Her tawny curls were compacting around her forehead and ears.
“I burnt the roast,” she said, “again.”
“Sorry, Mum,” she said, and looked over her shoulder in anticipation of the reply from the sofa.
“It needed more stock in it,” said her father without looking away from the television. “You never add enough stock.”
“I meant to. The time got away from me.”
Wendy wondered how exactly it was that time always got away from her mother. Her family never left the house on Sundays, and no one ever came to visit. On Sundays, more than any other day, her mother had hardly anything to do but remember to add more stock to the roast. Wendy did not think she had ever eaten a roast that was not burnt, nor eaten anything but burnt roast on Sundays.
Wendy resisted asking her mother how she could help. She never could. The bank of smoke pushed her towards the back of the sofa, where her fingers found the familiar shape of the button on the other side. She looked over her father’s shoulder at the little television, encased in its wooden stand, the images like a frayed grey quilt on a clothesline. A reporter was chattering to them urgently. The Kingdom of Iraq, she heard him say.
“What’s happened, Dad?”
“Gaylani took power.”
Rashid Ali al-Gaylani had been declared Prime Minister of Iraq three times now: before Wendy could remember in March 1933, in March of 1940, and now again in April of the following year. The footage of writhing streets and military men was interrupted by the tepid image of the reporter, and Wendy let her eyes drift to the window behind the television. The window looked out on the street which was one pastel-colored house pushed up against another with the tight mismatched texture of books on a shelf. The street curved around and out of sight into the middle of Harlow, Essex, but from the window of the house where Wendy had always lived, it seemed probable that the street just kept going round in a circle of threadbare houses, that the elderly woman who could be seen on her daily afternoon walk was in fact shuffling one continuous loop around the street. There were elm trees stuck between some of the houses, and the shadows of their leaves traced and retraced meaningless patterns on the sidewalk amid Prime Minister Churchill’s concerns about British interests in the area, sputtered the reporter.
His face flickered and was replaced by the image of the crowded street, full of flags and boys, spilling back from a platform propping up a bespectacled Iraqi man. Wendy could not tell if the crowd was outraged or ecstatic. It was chaos. Iraq without the British-imposed Hāshimites had been, according to the television and her father, simply chaos. The street where they stood and jumped and yelled was straight and wide. It went on and on, out of sight of the camera, intersecting with other streets and knitting together into the thrilling, unknowable whole of a great, dusty, turbulent city.
Wendy blinked the smoke sting out of her eyes to see the screen. The boys in the crowd were not much older than her. She dug her fingernails under the button on the sofa, half-hoping to tear it off, and imagined herself in that crowd, mired in chaos. She imagined she had a passport, and that she, a thirteen-year-old girl, would step off an aeroplane as a brave and righteous British citizen. She fantasized slipping between the dusty bodies of the boys in the crowd, helping the the harrowed citizens of Baghdad find some new peace, as constant as a quiet Essex street.