The glimmering surface of things

In Short Story Issue Six by Ian Packham

Glimmering surface

The Spitfire Bar was shuttered for Ramadan. So, new to the city, I followed the horse-drawn gharries along the wall of the Eastern harbour. Fully clothed women bathed in the Mediterranean from the tiny beach, like mermaids washed up from wintry depths. At the old fort, I turned inland amid the tangle of tramlines to one of Alexandria’s markets. Rabbits sat on upturned crates with hens and game birds patiently waiting their fate.

Young men stood by roughly constructed wooden carts looking vaguely at a world they knew they could never enter: that of European thé rather than Egyptian shai despite the revolution and tented camp that still lingered on in Cairo’s Tahrir Square two hundred miles to the south. If they were lucky they might get some rice, if they weren’t they would get fuul, the tasteless stewed beans of third-world Egypt.

The carts held mounds of softly oozing prickly pears plucked from cacti grown as windbreaks in the fields outside the city, where the roads narrow from four lane highways to single lane tracks. Peeled, the pears revealed an unsightly lump of melon-like flesh. Unpeeled, their spines shredded the hands of those boys. Watching as the city put itself slowly to bed, I thanked God I wasn’t one of them.

The restaurant was all but empty. Waiters rushed to clear away the crockery and abandoned food. I was alone save for Finn by me and Mikael wanting me, watching guardedly from across the room.

‘Where’s Carola?’ I said, approaching Mikael, avoiding the inevitable for a little longer.
‘I sent her away.’ He didn’t look up. ‘Come back to mine,’ he said quietly.
‘I don’t want to,’ I replied, looking away. I couldn’t look at him, either. It would have been kinder to say ‘I can’t’ rather than ‘I don’t want to’, but I felt I owed Mikael honesty if nothing else. I moved towards Finn, waiting silently, patiently for me to offload my night’s baggage. He started down the stairs and I went to follow.
‘But…I love you,’ Mikael whimpered above the almost soundless noise of rubber soles on marble. ‘I love you.’ I pretended not to hear.

On the street outside, bright with industrially sized fairy lights strung between buildings, I let out an audible sigh and walked the short distance to the Cornishe without a word, Finn by my side.

We sat on the colossal stones of the harbour wall, still warm from the day’s sun. The lights of the fort shone weakly across the water of the harbour, out-performed by the crisp new moon above it, only a few days old.

‘Why are you carrying those books with you?’ I finally asked.
‘Because otherwise I would have had to leave them at the restaurant.’
‘I mean – ’
‘I bought them earlier. I liked the cover designs. I’m going to use them in my drawings.’
‘You’re not going to read them?’
‘God no.’
‘I’m not sure I’d want to see someone who buys books but doesn’t read them.’
‘So if I promise to read them I can keep seeing you?’
‘Almost certainly,’ I replied, leaving my place on the wall. Finn followed. He span me round so we faced each other, causing a torrent of late-night promenaders to cascade around us.
‘Tomorrow?’ he asked.

It was clear that if I was to stumble into anyone the next morning it would be Mikael, and not Finn. He sat with two glasses of tea in front of him.

‘It will take me some time, but I want us to be friends at least,’ he said. I nodded.
‘And Carola?’ I asked. ‘I’m fairly certain she hates me.’
‘She’s gone home. Back to Europe I mean. She stuck it out longer than most of us expats, but she’s given up on the revolution just as much as Egypt seems to have.’
‘But the new president was a result of the Arab Spring.’
‘There’s going to be a coup. President Morsi will be overthrown.’
‘You’re working for Egyptian military intelligence now, rather than Ahmed?’
‘This is what always happens.’
‘Are you worried?’
‘No. We’re whites in an Arab country. We’ll be fine. Just like we were the first time round. I know there shouldn’t be that distinction, but there is.’ I noticed Paul watching us from the other side of the café.
‘You brought back-up?’ I asked.
‘Of course; you didn’t?’ he replied, nodding behind me where Finn lingered without my knowledge.

A pile of drawings on a low table next to me caught my eye. I picked up the uppermost, and started to flick through the stack. They were mostly charcoal line-drawing portraits on thick squares of grey paper that looked handmade. Some were just the outline of a nose or mouth or ear. Finn took a pair of lips from between my fingers and replaced the sheet on the table with the other drawings.

‘What do you think?’ he said.
‘They’re um…’
‘Not the drawings. They’re just quick sketches of people I’ve seen on the street. I meant the plan. Weren’t you listening to anything I said?’ he asked in mock anger. ‘Just put on a top and follow me.’

We took the bone-rattling tram all the way to Montazah Palace. It was like riding a rhinoceros as it moved through the East African plains: a slow shaky rambling that could turn into a short sprint when traffic allowed. We sought refuge from the intense heat under a copse of tall straight palms by what looked to have been an observatory, a stack of empty rooms leading to an eagle’s nest above. It reminded me of the pagoda at Kew. With Carola’s departure everything seemed to remind me of home.

We did very little that afternoon but talk. I tried to spot shapes in the clouds; a map of Europe, a ragged-looked sperm whale; but really the sky was too clear. The palace stood out of bounds, gated and guarded by conscripts eyeing us nervously, still twitchy from the revolt. Its Bavarian folly look was lost by the communications antennae that shot to the sky, dividing the dark blue cloudlessness into neat oblongs.

I woke with a start. The darkness of night had already given way to that confused pre-dawn half-light. The bright, perfectly semi-circular moon reflected in the harbour’s still waters. Finn was not beside me. It was not unusual for him to disappear, so I settled down to one of his coverless books until I heard the rattle of breakfast things approaching down the corridor.

He slid the tray of breakfast things onto the low coffee table, brushing aside a series of sketches and knocking over a pile of books in the process.

‘I saw that coming,’ he said ‘and yet I persevered to fulfil my fate.’
‘You see, that’s where you and I differ,’ I replied, restacking the books. ‘You drop the books to save the breakfast, I would have sacrificed the breakfast to save the books.’
‘Which is perhaps one reason you are always hungry.’
‘That’s also because I’m pregnant,’ I said in jest.
‘David; one day someone’s going to take you seriously when you say stuff like that.’
‘Who exactly? You still haven’t told me what you do with the book covers.’
‘It’s personal.’
‘More personal than sharing a four-foot wide bed?’
‘Okay, it’s art and therefore work. Work lives here,’ he said pointing to the left portion of his skull, ‘and I live here,’ pointing to the right hemisphere. ‘You should try it sometime.’ He waited for a response, which he didn’t get. I had already moved on to think about the breakfast. He had found me bacon again. In Egypt, it was easier to buy cocaine.
‘Give me a minute to have a shower and then you can unsuccessfully interrogate me about the pig,’ he said without my prompting, slipping out of his shorts.

The middle of our breakfast was interrupted by an angry knocking on the door. We looked at each other. Had someone overheard our earlier conversation? Finn rose with a cup and saucer in hand, and a mouth full of toast. He was excellent at looking unimpressed when it counted.

‘What the hell – Clare?’
‘Finn, its Bruno. My pig. He’s gone,’ she whispered in tearful gasps. She stood clutching the hands of her boyfriend.
‘Ah-hah!’ I cried triumphantly, looking to my bacon sandwich. Finn gave me a look that said he thought what I had said hilarious but had to be sensible for a moment.

After some time the garbled run of events was unravelled. I had used the excuse of cleaning up and returning the breakfast paraphernalia to absent myself from most of the story, though was able to glean the salient facts from her boyfriend, Colin.

Clare’s flat was the mirror image of its owner, pokey, a touch rundown, and guinea pig-less. A small kitchen – more a scullery updated to include two gas rings and a fridge – faced onto a washroom with tin bath. The rest of the space in the flat was left to a three-quarter sized bed surrounded by the clutter of everyday living and doors that led onto the balcony. Chicken wire enclosed the rococo railings detailed with iron fern leaves and rust.

‘What’s the Egyptian equivalent of deedpool?’ I asked. Finn pulled me aside, towards the kitchen.
‘Are you jealous of her or something?’ he whispered fiercely, returning frequent glances to the balcony.
‘Me?’ I replied, ‘jealous of … yes, maybe I am. She bursts in at six am in the middle of our breakfast and you drop everything straight away.’
‘Maybe I’m just not as cold-hearted as you. The breakfast will still be there when we get back; and the sooner we can wrap up this Bruno business, the quicker we can be back there enjoying it.’ This was looking like it could turn into a full-blown quarrel, so I held back my thoughts on the state of our tea when we returned, and conceded his point. ‘By the way, I’m with you, not her,’ he added.

We continued in a whisper. ‘Logically,’ I said turning my thoughts to Bruno, ‘it was either taken by a cat – unlikely given the sheer walls around the balcony – or it jumped. It could easily have climbed the chicken wire mesh. So it’s either running around at ground level, or, or it’s not.’

The streets of Alexandria were not made with guinea pig hunting in mind. There were far too many gaps, gashes and holes, and far too many hungry felines. Often I had been looked at oddly by Alexandrians when simply walking down El Nabi Daniel Street in my normal attire, so goodness knows what they were thinking when they saw me and three other acquaintances scatter from roughly beneath Clare’s balcony along the street crevices on our hands and knees. It felt decidedly indecent brushing through the black hems of the most modest of women, dodging pushchairs, children, and the squashed pulp of dropped prickly pears.

With 20 minutes of work behind me I had made it to the end of the short street. I perched on a kerbstone to rest my knees, with just enough space before more partially rotten waste to rest my feet. At the other end of the street I could see Colin and Finn still on all fours. Clare wasn’t in view. I sensed, rather than saw, a movement at my feet.

‘Bruno?’ I said looking down. I could have sworn he looked back at me with guilt, prickly pear matting the fur around his mouth. ‘Time to go home?’ I asked. He sniffed about my feet more vigorously and almost leapt into my hands as I lowered them. He was frighteningly hot, so before taking him the short distance home I bought a bottle of tepid water from a hawker and gently poured it over the length of Bruno’s body. He chirruped, that odd joyful call I always forget guinea pigs can make.
‘Breakfast?’ said Finn, as nonplussed as ever seeing me approach, clutching Bruno in my hands.
‘No,’ I said ‘the tea there will be ruined. Let’s go to El-Tugeraya. My glass is probably waiting for me.’
‘You’re more habituated than Bruno,’ he replied, taking the guinea pig from my arms. ‘At least he tries to escape the rigmarole, once in a while.’
‘My adoration of rigmarole is why you love me. Besides, it’s where people know they can find me.’
‘What people? You’re hardly a household name, like myself,’ he joked.
‘No not yet, but one day I’d like to think I could reach the heady heights of sketching the nostrils of strangers on scrap bits of paper.’

We arrived to find Paula waiting for us. She sat at my regular table, a dewy glass of tap water in front of her. She looked nervous. I only knew Paula vaguely through Mikael, and had never quite understood what she was doing in Alexandria. She hated the Mediterranean sun, and had already endured a month in Egypt’s summer. Paula was undisputedly the cleverest, most interesting of our small irregular grouping, thrust together by fate, boredom and revolution.

‘If you’ve lost a guinea pig too I’m not interested,’ I said, dragging a heavy chair out from the table.
‘It’s Mikael,’ she said, pausing. I looked expectantly. ‘He said you’d probably be here about now. He, er, he’s in Badawy Hospital. He tried to commit suicide.’ My surprise at this news was total, and selfishly my thoughts first turned to whether I might be the cause.
‘Jesus. He’s alright?’ I asked.
‘He’s asked to see you.’ I nodded, rising, looking to Paula and then Finn for some sort of comprehension. There were so many unnecessary questions I felt I wanted to ask: when, how, why, where; that just kept circling around and around my head. I could not think of what to say or ask first. Finn took my hand and led me out, leaving Paula where we had found her; just remembering to pass a crumpled one pound note to the waiter. We were in a taxi heading for Badawy Hospital before I had said a word. My hand was still held in Finn’s.

It was a private concern situated where the downtown area began to merge with El-Rehany, though there was no let-up in the height or size of the buildings tracing their way inland from the Cornishe. Baroque mansions lay in the shadow of Nasser-era concrete apartment blocks.

The hospital meanwhile was a modern white rectangular building. Its long straight corridors lined in linoleum gave off the faintest smell of chlorinated cleaning fluid as we walked without any thought of looking casual towards a curtained off bed we had been directed to by a staff nurse.

Mikael was heavily bandaged about both wrists, and naked to at least the waist. His lower body disappeared beneath a crisp blanket so white it could belong nowhere else but a hospital. His walnut coloured nipples, relaxed in the warmth of the ward, contrasted eerily with the off-white bandages around his wrists.

Mikael laid the book he was reading face down on the bed. In spite of the bandages he looked good, his normal self, his scrawny beard perhaps a little longer than it otherwise would have been. His nails had been scrubbed clean and trimmed. He looked cleaner than I had ever seen him. Finn made his excuses to give us time alone.

‘Well?’ I said. I didn’t think I needed to say more. The blond downy hair on his torso seemed to sparkle under the industrial lighting.
‘I… I don’t know,’ he said flatly. ‘I was feeling sorry for myself I suppose. I wondered whether anyone would notice. I had so much fighting for attention in my mind; this won,’ he said, raising his wrists. They reminded me of the bandaged legs of horses at a racecourse. He went on, ‘I used the blades cut from disposable safety razors.’ I could not help but laugh. ‘I told you that last bit because I thought you might make a quip of the futility of failing to successfully commit suicide.’
‘I had thought about it. Paula was in a bit of a state.’
‘I know. I do feel bad for her. What were you doing when she found you?’
‘I had just finished rescuing a guinea pig named Bruno.’
‘Tell me about it.’

The street lamps were flickering on along the streets to the sea by the time I went to leave. The night’s half-moon not yet quite visible from behind Ras el Tin district. I leant forward to kiss him.

‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,’ whispered Mikael.
‘You, or me?’ I asked, pulling back.

Finn lay on the cot on top of the bedclothes in the same clothes he had been wearing when I had last seen him at the hospital with Mikael. He rubbed a hand through his hair slowly, opening an eye.

‘Ah, there you are,’ he croaked, as if it was I who had disappeared completely for 36 hours. He levered himself up into a sitting position with a groan.
‘I ran out of bottled water while I was working,’ he said, his voice picking up, pointing at the expanse of wall opposite the bed. ‘So I started drinking rum.’ A small area of the wall, no more than two feet square, a stout horizontal rectangle, was covered in a dense network of roughly torn images, mostly of animals, held in position with masking tape. ‘What do you think? Honestly,’ he said. Coverless paperback editions lay strewn about the room. I picked a few up on route to the wall, weighing them in my hand. Pulling a pillow to the headboard and resting there he said ‘its art from art. A prototype idea.’
‘Noah’s ark?’ I asked. He smiled, glad of my recognition. ‘The lamb. It’s from a William Blake sketch?’
‘From a copy of Milton.’
‘Why the ark?’
‘Aren’t we all just animals herded into a small boat and lost at sea?’ I looked at him. ‘Truthfully? Because animals are easy to come by on book covers. Now I know the idea works I can try something more difficult to create. Then I just need someone foolish enough to part with money for one. Come here,’ he said stretching out an arm. I did likewise. He pulled me towards the bed. From there we gazed upon Noah gathering together all the animals he could muster as God commanded.
‘One thing’s always bothered me,’ I said finally. ‘There were two of every animal, correct? Noah first sends out a crow to find proof of land, and it doesn’t ever return, yet we still have crows.’
‘In one of the most ridiculous stories of all time that’s the bit that bothers you?’
‘Yes.’
‘Maybe there was another species of crow that didn’t survive.’
‘Maybe.’

We didn’t move out of the room until the moon, edging towards three-quarters full, was high in the night sky escorted by a multitude of stars. It was a clear night, a breeze keeping the clouds at bay, turning the clothes left to dry on wires hanging from balconies into clapping flags of colour. The perfect night for a stroll along the harbour wall, an enjoyable night with our friends celebrating the release of Mikael from hospital confinement the following day.

We packed a picnic basket and awaited Mikael’s regal exit by the stone steps that led up to the hospital’s main entrance. We escorted him like one would an elderly relative, to a waiting gharry, Finn on one arm and I on the other. Paula carried the basket of foods like it was a bomb designed to explode with any sudden movement.

The emancipated horse lurched unsteadily through Alexandria’s evening traffic as the gharry brought us to the city’s Roman amphitheatre.

We settled in the U of the theatre itself, the perfect size for a group of four. Mikael, with a long-sleeved top that hid the extent of his wrappings, looked exhausted already, with great darkening bags beneath his eyes. He didn’t seem up for celebrating and we soon led him to Paula’s where he would be staying a few days. She wouldn’t let us see him for another week, taking us right to the end of Ramadan, so we all agreed to meet again then, for Eid.

As the sun set, we closed the ornate gates to the Cecil Hotel’s colonial-era lift and headed for its rooftop bar. From our vantage point high on the Cornishe we could look down upon the fairy lights of ordinary Egyptians like minor gods of Olympus. With chilled beers in hand we waited the muezzin’s final call in Ramadan, and with it the fireworks of Eid.

‘You know what this means?’ Mikael said, settling beside me, facing the water, perhaps his Waterloo.
‘No. What?’
‘It’s the end of Ramadan. There’s an old Arabic proverb that says whatever starts in Ramadan must end in Ramadan. I’m tired of all this. I’m going home.’
‘You can’t I said. ‘We’re not finished. We’ve barely even begun.’

About the Author

Ian Packham

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I am an award-winning travel writer with contributions chosen for inclusion in two Bradt travel anthologies and in magazines including Adventure Travel and Sidetracked.