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I was three years old and the limits of my known universe extended only a few hundred metres from the corner of Sokolov Street and The Avenue, where our block of flats stood. I was obsessed with colours; after learning the names of all the primary ones practically overnight, I swiftly advanced to burgundy, mustard and lime green. One day I came home from kindergarten shaken, my belief in the impeccable order governing the world around me and in the omniscience of adults grossly undermined. “Esther called turquoise ‘blue’,” I told my mother with disbelief.

My favourite colour was green. It was a minor obsession: I took delight in wearing green sweaters or eating green boiled lollies. One day I saw a tiny dark green car parked in our street, so small that it was not immediately clear to me whether it was an undersized adult car or an overgrown toy. When I showed it to my mother she casually said “Oh, it’s a Mini Minor,” and I was amazed that my singular magical apparition had a name, that it formed a part of the regular order of things.

My social circle was mainly made up of the children of my mother’s friends. One day she told me that we were going to the birthday party of her friend’s son. The birthday boy was older than me and went to a different kindergarten, on the other side of busy Sokolov Street—the great divide of my early childhood. I had only met him once or twice and I didn’t know any of his friends. Having crossed the road, we walked down the tree-lined avenue for a couple of hundred metres and then we entered terra incognita. I was clutching my mother’s hand, my excitement mixed with trepidation—for I feared that I might be shunned by the unknown, bigger children.

Before long we arrived at a bulky building whose bare concrete walls housed some odd-looking machinery: I think it may have been a water pumping station. At the back of the building there was an open door, and when we went down the stairs we found ourselves in a crowded room full of bright-eyed children and their mothers. (The building may have been a makeshift community centre or perhaps even the birthday boy’s kindergarten.)

I’ve no recollection of the actual party; presumably, surrounded by kids high on sugar and presently getting high myself, I had an enjoyable time. Fast-forward to the end of the party: the birthday boy, wearing on his head a round garland of red and white carnations, is seated on a chair and hoisted by a few adults to above shoulder-height five times: four to mark his age, one for the coming year. There’s an exhilarated, breathless, noisy swell in the crowded and stuffy subterranean space. Then his mother gives him a large wicker basket, full of lolly bags, and – still crowned with his garland – he starts handing them out. The lolly bags are made of cellophane in different colours: red, orange, yellow and dark blue.

The clamour reaches new heights. He is mobbed by children who reach out their hands and call out his name in an ingratiating tone. I stand at the fringe of all this mayhem, overwhelmed. But soon the more aggressive, rowdy children have stepped aside with their loot, and the birthday boy keeps advancing steadily in my direction.

I look intently, transfixed, at the basket with its saturated red, orange, yellow and blue. I am not quite praying, but rather willing with the utmost intensity, that he give me a green cellophane bag. As he gets closer to me, my heartbeat quickens. The girl in front of me gets a red bag, flickering like a cold, glossy flame.

He is now in front of me; our eyes lock for a moment. He then reaches his hand into the basket, digs at the bottom and pulls out a dark green bag.

At home I keep on looking around me through the cellophane: a green universe expands wherever my eyes wander. When I tell my mother what happened at the party, she says: “Maybe it was telepathy”.

“What’s telepathy?” I ask, and she explains.

“So, he could read my mind, using telepathy?” I ask.

“Maybe,” my mother replies.

My mother was only twenty-five at the time. Life stretched ahead of us, expansive and seemingly endless, full of unimaginable wonders.

* * *

This is an extract from Returning to Carthage. To read more:

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