Short stories by Abu Dhabi writers

Microsleep and a strange appearance by The Thing Discuss this article

© ITP Images

Microsleep is a lapse in consciousness. It’s when your brain switches off – just for a few seconds, perhaps more, perhaps less. It’s characterised by a sudden shift between sleep and wakefulness. A jolt that jerks you awake. Like missing a step in the dark. You probably won’t recall the last few moments. Your eyes might not even close.

Mostly, microsleep occurs when you’re a) sleep deprived, and b) performing a monotonous task that requires constant concentration. Like, say, driving a car down a long desert road. You can drift out of your lane, or off the road entirely, without even realising it.

I was 11 years old when I first visited my grandparents’ saw mill. It was nestled in a town called Kutus, not far from the base of Mount Kenya. To get there, it’s roughly a two-hour drive from Nairobi, along one very long road flanked by a changing landscape of dusty towns and red earth that gradually transforms into lush farmland. Verdant plantations for tea and coffee slope up rolling hillsides and sellers peddle thick, chewy cobs of charred maize to passing cars.

My dad hopped out several times to buy bundles for snacking on. “You’ve gotta try this, kids,” he said. “Isn’t that the best maize you’ve ever tasted? Doesn’t get better than this.” The journey felt quick. I couldn’t take it all in. I wanted to stop everywhere, see everything. We saw a man with a bright smile pushing a heavily loaded wooden cart along the side of the highway. His flip-flops were made from old rubber tyres.

If you head north from Kutus, you’ll come across quaint mountain lodges nestled in the grounds of Mount Kenya National Park. Further east lie five more national parks and reserves, bisected by the Tana River and, to the west, you’ll find mountainous Aberdare National Park and its crashing waterfalls. Kutus is surrounded by an impossibly wild and rugged landscape that I could barely comprehend, one where safari cars roam while lions doze beneath trees, snakes lie still in the shade and giraffe lollop lazily between them.

But unless you live in the area, or happen to need an unusually large order of wood, there’s little chance you will have heard of Kutus. Much less Kutus Saw Mill. I remember seeing it for the first time, and wondering how on earth my grandparents, and their parents, and their parents before them, found their way from India to this East African country.

The saw mill was loud, filled with golden dust, but the surroundings shockingly green. Mango trees dropped their fruit by piles of roughly hewn logs and there was a pet monkey around somewhere, I was told. My grandma wandered through the chaos, wrapped in a sari, speaking to the local workers in Swahili. I’d never seen anything like it.

Back in the ’70s, my grandparents packed their bags and moved everyone to Manchester, England. They came back to Kenya a couple of years later, and ran the saw mill at the same time as a small corner shop in Droylsden, UK, while my dad and his four brothers and sisters went to school nearby. They’re all as English as you like, but our family dinners, now in the UAE, are always tinged with Swahili and Gujarati and memories of Kutus.

Recently, we went out for lunch, and my dad started talking to the Kenyan waitress in Swahili. She looked at him for a moment in disbelief. “I’m sorry,” she said, with half a smile, “I just can’t believe an English man is speaking Swahili to me.” We all laughed, but I could imagine how jarring it must have been for him to hear that. It made me think of how it must have felt when they all stepped out of the airport for the first time into the cutting air of the UK. How different even the pavements must have felt beneath their feet; damp and gravelly. A world away from the soft red earth of Kutus.

I thought about when we arrived in Dubai and the hot air and the dust flooded over us. Everything was beige. Was it really just seven hours ago that we had been speeding along motorways through emerald farmland in the back of my auntie’s draughty Ford Taurus?

Suddenly I was sitting, bewildered, with my sisters in the back of a juddering, humid taxi, speeding (literally) towards an entirely new life.

The saw mill isn’t ours anymore. We finally sold it in 2011, after my grandma passed away and my grandad moved to Manchester for good.

Sometimes, when I come home, I find my dad sitting in the garden, grilling maize over an open flame under our thatched, wooden gazebo, joking with us in Swahili and insisting we have a piece.

If I plotted the co-ordinates of my life – of my family’s lives – by decisions and not places, what would it show? What unending chain of events led us to this desert?

This road?

Where was I a moment ago? A century ago?

Did I shut my eyes?

1 The saw mill in Kutus.

2 Dad getting stuck into mill life.

3 Workers share cake with the family.

4 Wood ready for transportation.

5 Dad (far right), his siblings and friends in Kenya in the early ’70s.

6 Chaos inside the saw mill.

7 Frying cassava chips at home.

8 Grandma hard at work.

9 Mount Kenya rises above clouds.

The thing

by Liz Cookman

The Thing came out of nowhere. At roughly 7:32pm on a Tuesday it materialised in the bedroom of a quiet suburban terrace. By 8:01, its picture had been retweeted 417 times, an hour later it was in the thousands and soon all that was on anyone’s lips was “what is it?”.

The Thing was near on impossible to define, neither mass nor energy, light nor dark. It was every colour and yet at the same time no colour. It was everything and it was nothing, and no-one could agree on exactly what it was. Within a day, two sides emerged, and they squabbled tirelessly, with each faction becoming ever more certain that they were right. “I just don’t get how anyone can think that way,” each group said of the other.

On Wednesday, a keen young reporter found the house from the account the picture was tweeted from. It was boarded up, rigged with fizzing electric fences, and no-one answered her calls. Her newspaper offered a handsome reward for anyone who could get them access to the The Thing, and the street filled with people waving flags and demanding to see it.

On Saturday, a sharp-beaked editor ran the headline “People on the other side are idiots, survey finds”, and the game was on. “Leak reveals that actually they are idiots”, another newspaper replied. Commuters smiled and tutted and sniped at each other as they passed newsagent poster boards.

A week later, a wife in Manchester asked for a divorce because the man she married could never have thought The Thing was that. With salty tears streaming down her cheeks, a daughter in Bury St Edmunds told her father that she couldn’t have anyone who could misjudge The Thing so grossly anywhere near her son. A beetle-browed philosopher tried to calm the tension by explaining The Thing away on an early evening TV special. He said that our perception of reality is really just a reflection of ourselves and, anyway, meaning is purely a social construct, but he was jumped on his way home by a crazed supporter of one of the sides.

One year to the day after The Thing first appeared, a banner appeared on the house. It said “why don’t people talk over their differences anymore?”, and next to it a crimson heart and a peace sign had been sketched over and over in faint strokes. All that appeared in the press was a small side note on page 15, next to a story about out-of-date cheese, and the only pair of eyes on the street outside to see the banner belonged to a ginger tom.

What had started as an abstract concept was now a cultural monolith, and the truth was soon lost, and irrelevant.

By Sofia Vyas
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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