In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Andrea E. Macleod’s ‘The Art of Waving’ is the winning entry from the Pacific.
I was seven when my sister taught me you did not have to wave at people just because they waved at you. I asked her if she meant like when we were standing in the bank line with our dead mother’s boyfriend. It was just after she had died and the guard sitting at the door winked and waved. My sister said waving was social influence and ‘if we are not careful other people will make us what we are’. She also said I expect nothing from you. You are neither a flower nor a thorn. When she turned seventeen she got a tattoo with words that might have been by a Sufi poet. It said be melting snow. She said it meant ‘let everything and everyone wash away from you’. I said that it made me sad and she told me to grow up. She said it’s not sad it’s powerful. She mouthed the word a second time, slowly, so later it felt like it had settled as a layer of my own skin. As I grew older she insisted I understood why it was that in Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment 65 per cent of people administered electric shocks of the highest level to their fellow volunteers, even though they had been told increasing the voltage could hurt or seriously injure the participant. I told my sister I would never do that but she only raised her eyebrows and said people have a way of doing as they are told. Then she took my hand to show me all the children walking in a line holding hands on their way into the school.
Now that I am twenty-seven I choose to wave to the woman who walks her black poodle every day at 7 a.m. and when it is raining puts blue gumboots decorated with pictures of tiny bones on his paws. When it is hot he has yellow sneakers with polka dots; sometimes the poodle wears a bow tie. He is not wearing one today but it is Sunday; it is a day of rest. I do not wave to the woman who lives next door to us with her Cartier watch and Gucci sunglasses. Not because of those things, because if I had the money I would probably buy them too. I do it because of how the woman walks past people in a way that reminds me of what people do when foul air strikes their nostrils. I also do not wave to the homeless man with the black cart living on the bench near the entrance to the supermarket. This homeless man waves to people, he waves to them as if he knows them hi, hi, it’s been so long, hi and then, if they fall for his trick of familiarity he will ask them for money. If you do go to this homeless man, who smokes skinny cigarettes with his thick sausage fingers and smells like lamb’s fat and you do not give him money he will spit on you. Some days the homeless man is like the snake that bit our mother when she was a child but had no venom because before it had bitten her, it hit the horse and the goat. This homeless man, when he’s all dried up, makes this ghastly phlegmatic sound which is almost worse than the spit and the sound rattles in your head long after. It can become the beat of your dreams if you let it. Sometimes I think I would give him the money if he didn’t spit on me. My sister tells me to spit back on him.
I was only nine when I took to practicing the art of not waving without my sister around. I stonewalled my fifth grade teacher when she waved as I crossed outside her classroom. I felt an exhilarating power surge inside me and I ran all the way home, punching the air as I went. I honed the art of disaffection when the local priest waved to invite me to join the Easter egg hunt. I told my sister and she was proud, patted me on the head the way our mother had and kissed my forehead. She said ‘it’s your choice mjolnir’ and laughed. She said mjolnir could level mountains and I could too. She gave me lots of names. Palu for the intoxicating ironwood tree she read about once – little fire berry. But my favourite was something our mother used to say: little dove. To that my sister added rising out of the nigredo.
When I was eleven I started to obsess about why we waved at all. Where did it come from? Why one hand and not two? I had no idea when I was eleven that some people waved with both hands. I did not reach that level of enthusiasm for years. One observer on a late night internet search, on an obscure website that may or may not have been written by a legitimate anthropologist, wrote that it was possible the first men pasted their hand prints on cave walls to greet future visitors. The article was captioned ‘A Wave from the Past’. Then there were the studies on hand gestures, none of which could accurately detect when people began to wave, only to say that Queen Elizabeth II had one of the most famous waves and waving was once a popular activity in farewelling sea-faring folk, passengers on trains and loved ones heading to war.
I haven’t decided whether to wave at the new Fedex man, who might be Iranian, because my sister, who overheard someone speaking with him, says his name is Dalir, which means brave in Persian. I think, if I was Iranian I would want my name to be Yesfir which means star – together we would make brave star. But I am not Iranian. I know nothing much about Iran except where it is located and that the longest river is called the Karun. Our mother told us once ‘the river is everywhere’. It is from a book she loved called Siddhartha.
Dalir has skin that is the shade of weak coffee and eyes that remind me of the hues in magnolia leaves that have been spent from the tree for more than a week. My skin is the colour of curdled milk and if I spend a week in the pool over summer my hair still turns green even though someone told me I should have grown out of this by now because how many green-haired blonde women do you see, except for those who have used a home tint and resemble the variegated pineapple mint plants that have run amok in our tiny garden.
Dalir began our mail route six weeks ago, which I know because my sister noticed on Facebook that Evan, the guy who’d had the run before, had been hit walking home after work and was still in the hospital. My sister says Dalir might be the cousin of the Iranian man two blocks down from us because she watched Dalir go inside the apartment and he still didn’t come out after three hours, which was when she had to leave. The Iranian man, who sometimes tunes pianos but often is unavailable to work, doesn’t wave at anyone either. He makes me wonder about why he stopped waving.
I know an Iranian woman called Anoosheh who is my age and works as a receptionist at the local dentist. Sometimes she waves when I walk past the dentist surgery and I wave back. We had some classes together in school, which is why I wave. I remember in English sometimes the teacher would ask her to write stories about what it was like in Iran but instead she wrote about how a goat her cousin owned followed her to school. Someone asked did the goat get killed in the war. Anoosheh said no, the goat is not dead. It lives with my uncle. We told Anoosheh she could talk to us about her experiences in Iran because we understood, which was what the teacher told us to say. When new refugees arrived on the small clapped out refugee crisis centre bus and drove right past a group of us standing at the bus stop, everyone, except me, waved. Everyone on the bus waved to us, except Anoosheh. Anoosheh is the only person, other than my sister, that I have met who understood.
Everyone expected Anoosheh to have shrapnel scars or burns somewhere on her body from when the bombs fell on her house, because this is what we imagined happened to her. They thought she probably wanted to tell them the story about the Iranian scientist who left his wife and daughter at home and riding to work on his motorbike was blown up, perhaps because someone thought he was a supervisor at the plant where scientists were suspected of working on creating a nuclear weapon. Or how towards the end of the Iran–Iraq war in 1988, a US Navy ship called the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing all civilian passengers on board.
But Anoosheh didn’t want to talk about any of that. She didn’t say much at all. One day when she got undressed in the showers some of the girls climbed the cubicle to get a better look, but she didn’t have any scars that they could see either. I still think everyone was amazed when finally she told us this ordinary story about how nobody stops for anyone crossing the road in Iran meaning so many people die every year just stepping out onto the street. It was probably a year after she told us that story that we learnt this was how her mother had died. Anoosheh had been holding her mother’s hand when a truck hit them. I learnt this because someone told someone, who passed it on until I was told. When a local boy was killed recently at a crossing on a walk sign, Anoosheh, which means fortunate, was quiet for a week. She did not wave to anyone. I tell my sister, you know that girl Anoosheh who works for the dentist. My sister says yes, and then disapprovingly, the one that you wave at. I say yes. I think she was lying about the goat.
My sister follows Dalir from the mail depot. He rides a bike that was given to him by the refugee crisis centre. This is obvious because the paint is scratched up and it has two different tyres on it and nobody has anything second-hand these days unless they get it from the crisis centre. My sister hears that just after Dalir got the bike someone hung a sign on it that said Dalir fucks camels and the bogan guys from the housing commission still wrap towels around their heads and throw rocks at Dalir when he rides past. I wish a river would rise up and engulf them.
My sister says Dalir’s unit at the centre is in the same block where three girls were raped last year at a party. I remember there were no charges laid. In the paper, the photo of the girls showed them laughing and holding firecrackers to the sky. When one of them hanged herself six months later and word got out that she was pregnant, people got angry on social media but now nobody remembers the dead girls’ name. It might have been Dewar, which I read somewhere means stranger but it might also mean beautiful.
I decide to steal a letter from the Iranian man to find out his name. I find a handwritten envelope with small neat handwriting that says Mr F. Shahroudi. That night I look up his name Shahroudi on the internet. I find just one entry that could match. It is for a Farhad Shahroudi. The internet tells me a Mr Farhoud Shahroudi was a member of the Iranian National Orchestra, and who disappeared in 1996. He has one daughter. When I look up ‘Iran events 1996’, I find a transcript of an interview with a Tehran police chief that outlines that the testimony of a man, who claimed he was beaten and held captive by Iranian forces, was not credible, even though the man was later given asylum to live in the United States. I also read the police chief was paid a large sum of money to say these things but that this fact might also not be true. In the New York Times there was a story about an Iranian man who was beaten and lost six teeth from malnutrition in a Tehran prison. The man had one daughter. I take a screenshot of Mr Farhad Shahroudi. Later when I see the Iranian man F. Shahroudi taking out the trash, I take a photo of him. A real photo that I can hold to the light and trace his figure with my eyes. I feel certain it is the same man. I begin to wonder how I can know if he is Mr Farhad Shahroudi the famous Iranian pianist or Mr Farhad Shahroudi who lost his wife when her plane was shot down and has six false teeth.
Yesterday my sister found a book of poetry in our letterbox by Forough Farrokhzad. It has a page turned down at the poem called ‘The Wave’. It has my name written in pencil above the title. It begins, ‘to me you are a wave; never here, never there! You are – still – nowhere!’ In that moment I see the Wave and my mother’s river everywhere. And I see that even if I wave to Dalir it does not mean that he will wave back.
The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020. See here for further details.
Image © Allan Rostron