Long Way Home
Twilight, dawn, dusk, noon. During the darkest days of an Uppsala winter, such words that tracked the movements of the sun lost their distinctness, their meanings blurred around the edges. This is no different to that, Jennifer Teo told herself firmly. No different to when the sun only deigned to make a brief watery appearance in the height of December. Just put one foot in front of another. You’re almost there. Almost there. Jennifer took in a deep breath to try and calm her jittery nerves. Strangely, the air did not have the cold lifeless bite she had come to expect from her first winter here. In fact, it smelt almost like, what was it, yes, like home. The temptation of a taste of home made her remove the white kitchen towel from her face to swallow a bigger mouthful of air. She could detect a metallic tang in the air, weighed down by a heavy humidity. She closed her eyes and let the taste in her mouth transport her to a different city, one she knew well. Kuala Lumpur. Or Kay-El, as the locals called it. Car engines purred and motorcycles revved as drivers and riders hurried to outrun the gathering grey clouds that held the promise of an impending downpour. Meanwhile, a lorry loaded with crudely sawn logs belched out plumes of black smoke as it climbed a slight incline. A shopping mall loomed by the side of the highway, housing shops that sold everything from Japanese fashion and Korean cosmetics to Chinese electronic gadgets, restaurants and cafes, and a cinema that screened the latest Hollywood, Hong Kong and Bollywood films. Jennifer knew that the smaller and older double-storeyed shophouses, those that had survived the opening of the shopping mall, stood behind the mall. A couple of kilometres beyond that was the residential area where she lived with her parents, or rather, where her parents lived while she, she wasn’t there.
How did I end up here? Jennifer wondered. And more importantly, how do I get home?
"Boom! Boom-boom-boom! The next few explosions followed one another in quick succession. Another boom shook the building and sent Jennifer tumbling onto the floor on top of Leo."
Jennifer was attending a party earlier that evening at Flogsta, the infamous student neighbourhood in Uppsala, when the first explosion occurred. No one paid much attention to it. It sounded quite far away, and anyway, most of the party-goers were already deep in their cups by that time in the evening. There was only one sofa in the common area of the corridor where the party was held, and Jennifer was squeezed into one end of it. She was reluctant to vacate her seat for fear of losing it. She realised after a while that the sofa had taken on certain characteristics of a vortex, where parallel and not necessarily connected conversations swirled around it and frequently disappeared without trace.
“China is a great example of how an authoritarian government can actually make things work,” an earnest-looking woman that Jennifer recognised from her political science class said. “They’ve drafted in armies of scientists and researchers to tackle their pollution problem. Armies, literally.”
“Greta took the trains to London, and now a boat – all the way to New York! Isn’t that spectacular?” A woman with a head of curly hair let out a deep chuckle.
“It’s too late. We’re all going the way of the dinosaurs. Skol!” This was a contribution from a corridor resident’s friend who was visiting from Ireland. He raised his beer bottle and grinned placidly at nobody in particular.
The second explosion sounded much closer and made Jennifer spill some of her beer onto the floor. She went into the kitchen to find a towel to wipe up the spillage and saw Leo, her fellow master’s student from Syria.
“Hey sweetie.” Leo hooked his right wrist around Jennifer’s neck and attempted to dance with her, a bottle of wine clutched under his left armpit.
“Leo, did you hear that?” Jennifer gently unhooked his wrist from her neck. “Put down your wine for a sec. No one’s gonna take it.”
Leo put his bottle of wine on the kitchen table and stared deeply into Jennifer’s eyes. “Look, do you think that guy over there is checking me out?” Leo gestured clumsily with a twist of his neck towards a slim dark-haired man standing by the kitchen door.
“What? I don’t-I don’t know. Just focus for a sec. Did you hear that? Just now? Sounded like an explosion, or something.”
Boom! Boom-boom-boom! The next few explosions followed one another in quick succession. Another boom shook the building and sent Jennifer tumbling onto the floor on top of Leo.
People screamed. Someone started crying. Questions and theories flew about.
“Fuck me! What was that?”
“Could it be Russia?”
“But the Cold War’s long past!”
Jennifer sat up and tugged her phone from her jeans pocket. She was dismayed to see that her phone battery had died.
“Leo, check your phone.” Jennifer nudged Leo, who was struggling to sober up. “What does the news say?”
“Ok, hang on.” Leo scanned the news websites on his phone. “Ok, some explosions reported in Sweden. Hmm hmm… also Iceland, other parts of Europe. Experts not sure what’s happening, authorities asking people to stay calm.”
“Is it a bomb? Is it man-made or what? Can they not tell?”
“Hang on, hang on. Ok, latest opinions. Experts think not a bomb. Simultaneous eruptions. Across the globe. Scientists think something to do with the core of the Earth. Whatever that might mean.” Leo looked up at Jennifer. “Also, explosions in Asia.”
“Where in Asia?” Jennifer managed to croak out as a cold hand of fear gripped her throat.
“Indonesia on the equator, Malaysia as well.”
“Are you sure? Are you-I need to call my parents, I need to-can I borrow your phone?”
“Sure, sure. Here you go.”
“Wait, it’s not working, nothing’s working. What’s happening?”
“Lemme see. Hmm … the internet’s down. I can’t get a phone signal either.”
“Shit, shit, shit! What do we do? Where do we go?”
"...people automatically gathered somewhere where they could trust that a higher authority – either religious or secular – would protect them."
“Sweetie, you gotta put the towel back on your face.” Leo prodded Jennifer’s shoulder and mumbled through his handkerchief.
“It’s ok. The air isn’t that acrid here.”
Jennifer and Leo had been walking for what felt like hours. They could not gauge from the skies if it was close to daytime because ash and dust hid the skies from their view. The walk back from Flogsta to their respective apartments in the centre of town should not have taken more than a couple of hours. However, the eruptions had felled trees and buildings which had in turn made some roads unpassable.
As they took what must be their tenth detour, Jennifer saw that a few more people were joining a makeshift group that were making their way towards the town centre.
“Where are they going?” Jennifer asked Leo.
“The cathedral probably, or the castle. Some place central, strong.”
Jennifer wondered if this was a human instinct that reared up in times of danger and uncertainty. That people automatically gathered somewhere where they could trust that a higher authority – either religious or secular – would protect them.
To distract herself from her aching feet, Jennifer asked Leo, “Leo, why are you here?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you doing in Uppsala?”
“You know, the war, in Syria.”
“And, I can’t be myself in my country. I like men, as you may have noticed.”
“Yes, I sure have.” Jennifer smiled at her friend.
“What about you, sweetie? Why are you here?”
“Oh, well, the usual. To live the life of the mind. To climb the academic ivory tower.”
“Hmm … that doesn’t sound – that – convincing.”
“Well, it’s not, it hasn’t been, what I expected.”
“How do you mean?”
“The professors, well, most of them, are brilliant. And being able to immerse myself in academic research and theories is a luxury. Something I could only dream about when I was working. But – ”
“I miss working. I miss connecting with people, through my work, my teaching. Seeing the little bit of impact I make build up over time.”
“Ah, it’s only two years, sweetie. You can go back after you finish your studies. And bring back the knowledge you’ve gained with you.”
“Go back?” Jennifer pivoted around on the spot with her arms outstretched, laughing wildly. “Can we? Go back?”
Leo held her arm to stop her from spinning around a second time. “Look, lemme show you something.” Leo took out his phone and scrolled to the pictures folder on his phone. “This is my hometown. It’s a little village, some two hours from Damascus. Beautiful place, isn’t it?”
Jennifer stared at a younger Leo standing calf-deep in the water under a waterfall and making a thumbs-up sign.
“It looks idyllic,” Jennifer told Leo. “What would you do when you return to your village?”
“Round up my boys, spend a day by the river. Fish, swim.”
“Where are they now? Your friends from home?”
“Oh, all over. Germany, the US. Hey, I even know someone who went to Kuala Lumpur.”
“It’s Kay-El,” Jennifer smiled. “No one calls it Kua-la Lum-pur.”
“Kay-El.” Leo rolled the syllables around on his tongue. “What’s the first thing you’d do when you’re in Kay-El then?”
“You should ask a Malaysian what’s the first thing they would eat, not do. Lemme see. I’d love, absolutely love, to have a nasi lemak. But I think I need to take it easy on my Sweden-ised stomach. Don’t think I can handle the spicy sambal straightaway. Ooooh, I know, cod fish, steamed very simply, Cantonese style. With rice of course.”
“Hey, we’re almost there.” Leo pointed at the twin spires of the cathedral, barely visible in the dusty atmosphere. “Nearly home.”
“Home,” Jennifer repeated after Leo. After a pause, she continued, “It’s a sad, sad thing. To have a home, and not to be able to return to it.”
“That’s not even the saddest thing.”
“To have hope that I can return home one day. But to have to quash that hope, a little at a time, so that I can survive, so that I can live, build another life.”
A tear rolled down Jennifer’s cheek. She patted Leo’s arm awkwardly.
After a while, Jennifer said softly, “I have a home. I have a home, but I did not return to it. Not in time. Is that not, also, the saddest thing?”
A series of eruptions, the heaviest so far, rocked Uppsala town centre. All lay quiet after that.