Khaled Mansour rested the shovel against the wall of his apartment building and bent to beat a puff of fine orange earth from the knees of his trousers. The grave he had dug was deep and neat and in a shady place in the corner of the small garden. A policeman stepped out of the sentry box that guarded the Ministry of the Interior on the other side of the street. Khaled lowered his head and went inside.
He crossed the foyer without looking at the spot where Duchess had been found the previous night, or thinking about what might have happened to her. The call to prayer bleated from a megaphone high up on the mosque on the seafront and he tried not to think about that either.
Upstairs, he washed the soil from his hands. Mina, his Filipino housekeeper, had become hysterical earlier when she looked into the makeshift coffin and now mouthed troubled incantations from her tiny bedroom off the kitchen. Khaled checked again that everything was ready. There were pink and white peonies in a beaten silver vase on the piano. Arak and Johnny Walker waited in Baccarat decanters. He had laid the table with a cloth of fine Lefkara lace and old Limoges china, his mother’s wedding presents. In the months since she had died he had looted the heavy sideboard in the villa that overlooked the bay. His father and brother spent most of their time at work and hadn’t noticed.
Khaled loaded a brass tray with small plates of mezze. He had prepared the food himself, dishes learned from his mother and from the chefs who worked for his father. He had spread scented rice and ground lamb on vine leaves and rolled them as neatly as cigars. He had picked over bunches of parsley and mint for tabbouleh, had charred aubergines until they blistered then whipped their flesh with garlic and lemon. There were sticky black olives steeped in orange rind and coriander seed, and warm slippers of manakish wrapped in white linen. He carried the tray to the table and arranged the small buffet.
Heels clacked across the hall, faltered, clacked again. He heard hoarse giddy whispers, then a hollow rap that swelled and filled the apartment. He opened the door wide and greeted Harriet then Andrea with three solemn kisses on the cheek, right then left then right. They were flushed. He suspected they found the occasion ridiculous and had met for a drink before coming upstairs. They followed him into the salon.
The white cat was laid out in the position she had been found in, on her side, legs very straight, with flexed paws and wincing pink tinged eyes. Khaled had lined an old vegetable crate with pink and purple tissue paper begged from the florist and placed her in it. Fetid cabbagey fumes lingered about the box so he had sprayed it liberally with Dior Fahrenheit. His coffee table was a generous slice of one of the Cedars of Lebanon, buffed and glossed to a rich, regal sheen and topped with a disc of reinforced glass. The coffin sat in its centre, the dry, splintered wood in contrast to the burnished, ancient circles that supported it.
She had appeared on a late November day when snow fell. Every year a skiff of snow clung to the minarets and diesel streaked cables and cheap neon signage of Sidani Street. That day the bread seller on the corner had said “it has not snowed in the city for forty years” as he handed over the soft khubz and pretended there was no change. Khaled had torn the bread into a saucer of hot chocolate, had watched the cat slink about the stone stairwell before bending her thin neck to the mauve liquid. He hadn’t dared to name her until she had stayed for a week.
Harriet pressed Khaled’s arm, offered a condolence in Arabic. The previous night she had knocked his door after eleven and led him downstairs to the foyer where the cat lay cold and hard facing the front door, as though she had been placed there. Andrea had brought Chinese New Year papers rubbed with gold leaf that caught the early afternoon sun as she tucked them into the sides of the box.
“I would like to do the ceremony first,” he said.
The women turned to look at him. Khaled leaned over the coffee table and ran a finger lightly, slowly from the bridge of the cat’s tiny nose to the nape of her neck. That she didn’t arch her back in pleasure almost made him weep. He lifted the box and turned towards the door. Her weight felt different now, still and dark. The bell around her neck rattled dully as they went down the stone staircase and out to the small garden. A woman in a car at the traffic lights wound her window down for a better look at the odd little party that was arranging itself around the small grave. Harriet folded the candy coloured tissue over the top of the box. He knelt to put it in the ground. As he lowered her down Duchess gave one last tinkle.
Andrea tore a branch from the bougainvillea that clung to the side of the building and began to toss blossoms into the hole. Khaled closed his eyes and when he opened them Harriet was looking at him with such pity he felt foolish. He refilled the grave, and pressed the last shovelful of earth around a tender rosemary plant. The women went into his building ahead of him and he glanced at the sentry box across the street. The young policeman had watched everything.
In the salon, Mina had come out of her room and was sulking beside the dining table. Harriet stepped out of her shoes and sat deep in the corner of the couch, tucking her feet beneath her. Khaled opened a bottle of champagne and Mina poured and served. He raised his glass but could think of nothing to say. Andrea stood beside the coffee table and jiggled her right leg. Then she felt around in her bag and pulled out a lighter.
‘You must take a cigarette from here,’ Khaled said and nodded at a wide silver bowl that now sat where Duchess had been, full of unopened packets of cigarettes.
‘I’ll smoke one of mine,’ she said.
‘It is considered inhospitable for a host to allow his guests to smoke their own,’ said Harriet.
‘Total bloody opposite to home, then’ said Andrea, and reddened. Khaled gave her a cigarette and lit it for her. Their glasses were almost empty so he poured again.
Andrea sucked deeply on her cigarette and began to walk around the room. She looked at the old Yemeni jewellery hanging on the walls, stopped in front of a dark cabinet from Damascus inlaid with mother of pearl. She turned to Khaled.
‘I love all your stuff. It’s so Arabic.’
‘Imagine,’ said Harriet.
‘Actually, my boss said that a lot of the Lebanese are not Arabs.’
‘Christ,’ Harriet said.
Khaled wondered how much they had had to drink before they came upstairs.
‘Phoenicians. They are descended from the Phoenicians, he said.’
‘Oh. Is it like you being Welsh, Andrea?’
‘I don’t know if that’s what he meant,’ Khaled said. He stood by the table.
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep going on about me being Welsh. English people are always doing that because they can’t say horrible things about the Irish anymore.’
He poured the last of the champagne into their glasses and gestured at Mina for another bottle. He went to the table again.
The women got up. He extended his arm slowly over the buffet, pausing to describe each dish, then handed each of them a plate.
‘I can’t believe you made all this,’ said Andrea.
‘He makes the best moutabal,’ said Harriet, the last word ear perfect.
‘Who taught you to cook?’ said Andrea.
‘An old chef called Selim.’
Andrea took her plate to the couch and patted the cushion beside her. Khaled hesitated then sat.
‘Harriet said you ran the restaurant in the Al Boustan Hotel,’ she said. Her left ear and part of her neck were red, her voice loud and loose.
‘My father owns it. He runs it now with only my brother.’
‘Why did you leave?’
Khaled went to the balcony, aware of a look, or perhaps a gesture, being exchanged as he crossed the room. He looked along Sidani Street. The heat haze of earlier had burnt off and the road trembled with an oily shimmer. The traffic had backed up to the American University. The Bedouin boy with the burnt leg had come out in time for rush hour and was trundling deftly on his little cart between the waiting cars, shaming drivers for money before they had time to close their windows or fix their eyes ahead. There were two policemen in the sentry box.
‘We had a disagreement,’ said Khaled, when he came back in. He gestured at Mina to fill their glasses, then sat beside Andrea again.
‘Families,’ she said, and put an olive in her mouth. She asked Harriet about a man she had met at a party for the Queen’s birthday in the British Embassy. An oily seed glistened on her chin as she talked. Khaled wanted to wipe it away but her knee was touching his and it might encourage her.
‘Will you be okay if we leave? I have a conference call in an hour.’ Harriet stood and handed Mina her empty glass and full plate.
Andrea sat on.
‘Andrea. Yallah. Let’s go.’
Khaled thanked them for coming and saw them out. Harriet hugged him and went down the stone steps. He offered Andrea a cheek. She hesitated then leaned in suddenly. Her dry tongue flicked against the corner of his mouth.
‘I can stay,’ she said. Khaled gave her what he hoped was a sad smile and with his hand on the small of her back, guided her towards the stairwell.
When he went back inside, Mina had tidied away most of the buffet.
‘Ya Allah,’ he said and sat down in an armchair.
‘She likes you,’ she said.
‘She does. The drunk one likes you.’
Khaled told her to pack up the leftovers and take the rest of the evening off. He went out on to the balcony again. It was seven. The hotel’s first dinner guests would be arriving. Eleven months had passed since he had last teased Selim about the evening’s specials, or used a folded beer mat to steady table nine. Eleven months since his brother had heard him with Mahmoud.
The evening yawned ahead of him without Duchess for company. He would take his time to make the small choices that would kill the hours before bed. Whether to listen to some music or watch reruns of an Egyptian soap. Whether to drink café blanc or mint tea. What time to draw the shutters and pack his nargileh with hashish to help him sleep. It seemed too early to give in to it, the inevitability of it. He poured a whiskey and went back out. A different policeman was in the sentry box.
In the garden the rosemary plant had begun to wilt. He was about to light a cigarette when there was a knock at the door. The young policeman had changed out of his uniform and was wearing jeans and a white t shirt.
‘I am Elie. I saw a car hit your cat last night. I brought her in so the rats wouldn’t get her.’
They stayed in the doorway in silence. Khaled hesitated then stood aside. Elie went into the salon, the sense and scents of the city, of Café Najjar and Camel Lights and sandalwood, trailing behind him. Just for a moment Khaled let himself feel it. A wretched surge of hope.
– END –