by Steve Johnson

by Maria Nestorides

A few months shy of my seventh birthday, my mother, sister, and I boarded a plane from Heathrow and set off to join my father who had flown out a few months earlier.

To the Persian Gulf.

This was the answer my mother gave to the friends and family who came to wish us a safe journey and ask where my father’s new job was taking us.

I had no idea where we were going. This was 1974. There was no internet, and I doubt my Junior Encyclopedia would have had an entry on it, or that I would have thought to look.

It was early evening by the time our plane landed in the Sultanate of Oman. Despite the lateness of the day, the heat of the fiery Middle Eastern sun had not subsided much and we were welcomed with a blast of hot, humid air when the airplane door opened. My dad came to pick us up and he drove us from the airport towards our new home.

The compound was an insignificant speck of life within a vast beige nothingness, a tiny reminder that there was life in this arid desert country. Twenty or so small, white homes stood dotted around the compound, in glaring contrast to the golden sand and barrenness that surrounded them. We were given one such small prefab house to live in.

On many occasions, we were at the mercy of violent and unexpected desert sandstorms. One day, a particularly vicious one screamed and raged through our compound and lifted the flimsy, oven-baked, corrugated iron roof from our neighbour’s home, leaving it looking like a tin can with its lid half-removed. I stood at the window staring out into the chaos of the storm, my hands scrunched up into white-knuckled fists against my chest, not so much from fear, but from the thrill coursing through me that something was actually happening.

We were all flung together in a type of communal isolation with literally nowhere to go. There were no restaurants to speak of in the first years we were there, no cafes, no social venues. All entertaining happened on the compound. We kids didn’t really care much about the grownups’ get-togethers, but because there was nowhere for our parents to leave us (and nowhere for them to go), we usually tagged along to the home of whoever it was that was hosting a gathering that weekend. Music blared, alcohol flowed, and the scent of lamb roasting on large skewers wafted through the air. The whine of cicadas at dusk gave way to the low, thrumming, comforting hum of crickets at night.

One Christmas, I got a bicycle as a present, complete with colorful tassels and a bell. I was elated when I first climbed onto that bike and completed a lap of the dirt road that meandered around the compound, something that took less than a minute to do, even when I pedaled as slowly as I could.

That’s when I discovered it, not too far from my house: a splatter of tarmac, gray from prolonged exposure to the Middle Eastern sun and dust. It measured, at most, maybe two meters in length and a meter in width. I never knew why it was there, although I had two theories. My first theory (and the most uninteresting) was that it had been mistakenly spilt from the tarmac truck. My second theory (and my favorite) was that the company was planning on laying a brand-new tarmac road in place of the dusty, gritty road that orbited the compound.

Often, I would ride my bike and center it right smack dab in the middle of the little patch of tarmac. There, I would envision a long stretch of road ahead of me, one that would go on for miles, as far as my eyes could see, and in my mind’s eye, I glided along it. The thrill that I might soon be cruising along a smooth, pristine, ebony-black road instead of riding on the dirt and gravel that jostled and shook me filled me with a heady optimism.

I often met up with some of the other kids from the compound there at my little patch of tarmac and we would each take our positions on it. Many important decisions were made there, such as who would be ‘it’, who would be picked to play on whose side in the sports we played, or who would stay there to count to 100 so the rest of us could run off, with barely supressed giggles, to go hide. But, for me, my little patch of tarmac also brought with it the wish for something better, the tingling feeling of good things yet to come. It brought hope.

Many years later, when I revisited my old compound, a brand new, jet-black tarmac road had been laid, one that spiraled its way, spider-like, around the compound that had been revamped with brand-new, white prefab houses, ready for some other little girl, like the one I had once been, to get on her bike and soar her way around.

Image: Painting by Steve Johnson. Find more of his work on Instagram @artbystevej.