And verily We had empowered them with that wherewith We have not empowered you, and had assigned them ears and eyes and hearts—Quran, xlvi, 26
My instructions are to deliver the corpse to Nastassja Kinsky. We are to meet at nine tomorrow morning in the lobby of the Cecil Hotel, just off the seashore in downtown Alexandria. The corpse is a lightweight microelectronic bolt that looks like a miniature coffin; Nastassja Kinsky is an agent of the Plant. If I revealed what the Plant is, I would die.
Five weeks ago, a bearded boy came into my office and took his clothes off. Later that night I told my wife we had to be separated by the end of the year. She mouthed the word divorce interrogatively and cried. I stayed in the office until I found an apartment, seeing the boy every day. He tasted of sand and vine leaves, groaned like a reed flute, and made me so happy it didn’t even register that I was sleeping with a man.
Since then I’ve learned many things. One: that sexuality is a silly mental construct, but so is almost everything else in this world; who would have thought a thing like the Plant was possible? And two: that the Plant is so powerful and fair, no one would have to kill me if I was to die; I would just contract an illness, have a car accident, something. The Plant can make things happen so only you are responsible; it can alter the constitution of the air.
The boy proved lithe and tender, a divine sensualist, but it turned out he was on a mission to recruit me. His name was Allen Ginsberg, he said; mine was to be Joseph Koudelka. My post would involve making weekend trips to deliver microelectronic parts around the region. He explained to me what the Plant is doing to change the world, why I was chosen for the vacancy, and how those deliveries matter.
The term of the contract was unspecified, but he assured me about the Plant’s employment philosophy: No one will serve for longer than a very small portion of their lifetime. In that brief period people have what he called adventurous skill accumulation. Payment is made only once at the end; it never involves money but, Believe me, he said, it is worth it.
You’re not serious, I scoffed.
It’s like the trip of a lifetime, he ignored me, except you learn a lot too. And you get a very valuable present at the end, something to treasure forever.
Learn about what, you howling faggot?
He was crouched on the floor tying up his shoelace; I couldn’t help ogling his perfect buttocks, barely believing they were in my hands just a few minutes ago.
I already said—no questions!
Okay, I drawled. Whatever.
So, what do you say, he looked up. Will it be yes or no?
Something made me nod, vigorously, though I knew it meant I would never see him again.
It also meant I would halt all my current routines: monthly visit to my mother in Damietta; weekly drinking binge with two school friends; the divorce proceedings; moving house; everything.
The third thing I learned is that it happens to everyone, at least once or twice in the first week of work: you think you’ve gone mad, that all you’ve been experiencing is a string of hallucinations. The thought still dogs me, a temporary comfort, because what’s actually frightening is it’s real. The way things happen, they happen by order of the Plant.
And so I’ve made four journeys on the job, all safe, straightforward transactions, with the opportunity for a little sightseeing on the side.
Tonight, switching off my cell phone the way I’m supposed to for the duration of every assignment, I board the train to my favorite weekend destination for the first time.
It is more complicated because I haven’t been in Alexandria for months; and it always stirs up difficult emotions when I go. Not once did I board this train with any goal but to relax, usually after a big case or another extramarital affair: with a woman. Before Allen Ginsberg—believe it if you will—I had never touched a man in my life.
So far it seems no different from any other time, though: the stiff-backed seat, neon lights, chug-chug of iron-clad progress as we pass a sequence of empty sandlots, slowing at the dimly lit crossroads of some outlying shanty town before we pick up speed.
Only, after the bedlam of Ramses Station, the coach feels eerily quiet. I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg: the way his spine would curve to pre-empt a particular caress; his biceps stiffening while one hand cradled his balls, the other pushing his face down. Suddenly it strikes me that we’ve passed both Cairo stations and I’m still alone on the coach.
I get up and scale the entire iron horse, hand on corpse in my asbestos-padded pant pocket while I cross from one coach to the next. Maybe it’s the Nawwah, a kind of mini hurricane that ruffles the coast once or twice a winter, but there are fewer passengers on the Cairo-Alexandria line tonight than I’ve ever seen. I must dismiss the idea that this is the work of the Plant.
Frequently, on performing a task — that’s what the guidelines said to the word, as far as I can recall them: instructions are transmitted through a packet-switching information grid like the internet but without hard drives or cache; all files are self-deleting, they appear for three minutes at a time, and you’re expected to commit their contents to memory — you will notice that particular events develop in an unusual or salient manner, generally in such a manner as to facilitate or conceal elements of your undertaking. You will not stop to think about such developments… At certain, higher branches of the Plant, it is possible to control the range of eventualities in a very limited portion of the space-time continuum; in your experience, however, it may or may not be the case that such control has been exercised. It is pointless and marginally less efficient to attempt to find out if it has…
The corpse writhing and beaming imperceptibly on my groin, I take the book out of my rucksack and start reading. It’s an eleventh-century Sufi text, an interest I’ve kept up since doing my MA in Islamic Law; it talks about the unity of existence.
Every number is reducible to the one, it says; and in like manner, all things are reducible to their oneness, however much they multiply, or differ. No thing can exist without a sense of its value, but no value can be sensed without a unit: all, in the ultimate exhalation of the holy breath, is one… But a passenger just came into the coach and the sight of him is distracting me.
He is young and brawny, the passenger, the shape and color of Allen Ginsberg, but broader shouldered and clean shaven. If you multiply one by one you will obtain one, the book says, but if you multiply it by any other value you will obtain no other but that value. From my seat I can only see the back of his head, but I know he is inwardly staring at me.
There was eye contact when he passed: I made a note of the tiny fish-shaped scar above his eyebrow, how abruptly the fuzz behind his ears gives way to curls, his nebulous grin.
I haven’t had eye contact since. Somehow I just know he is staring at this bald, fast aging lecher, following the fingers with chewed cuticles as they turn the pages, reveling in the sheer libidinal need contorting the chapped lips. I do know, because the moment I get up, he turns his head and signals with his eyes, that same grin promising my deliverance.
Excuse me, he breathes; his voice is higher than I want it, but his jawline is chiseled, spare stubble glittering in the fluorescence like some black-green savannah in miniature.
I was wondering if you might know what this is. He holds up a piece of card, black, whittled into an immaculate octagon: an item I’m familiar with. I just found it in my pocket, he laughs diffidently, shrugging. No idea where it’s come from.
Oh? Now I remember that, when he came in, the train had not stopped since my tour of the coaches, nor had I seen anything like him while my eyes scoured the seats, freaked out by the inexplicable scarcity of passengers.
Maybe you can help me? Oh to trace the fish with the tip of my tongue, to lie back and feel the savannah punishing my plains. I know it sounds whacky, but there has to be an explanation.
Is it just me, he adds suddenly, or is this train empty like mad?
It is, I mumble, trying to steady myself. Empty… yes. I was… just thinking that.
Then I’m striding ahead, balancing with difficulty, his breath on my shoulder and nothing else in the world, until we are face to face in the toilet cubicle and the door is locked.
Let’s see, I hiss, clutching at the soma that torments me.
Before I realize it, I’m not sure where he’s gone. The cubicle door is ajar and I’m crouched in the corner gathering together my clothes. I do it fast, wiping the semen off my thighs and picking wet hairs from my face, even though it’s clear there’s no one around to watch me. In half an hour or so the only thing he said is his name, panting and grinding: Jim Morrison.
Straightening, at last, I slip my hand in my pocket to make sure the corpse is there, but what stands out against the cold, packed grain of the asbestos is warmer and more angular, wider on one side; it is perfectly stationary, too: it doesn’t give off waves or beams.
I take it out: the black octagon. Must be a message from the Plant, I decide, hoping it will explain. Can’t wait to get to the hotel, though: in the room, I can bring its edge into contact with a naked wire and absorb what it says before it bursts into flames.
No point worrying, I know, but how can I be sure Jim Morrison really works for the Plant? If he doesn’t—no joke—I will probably be maimed.
The fourth thing I learned: plans change spontaneously as often as not; sometimes the least expected thing is the thing that’s supposed to happen. And the fifth: only end result, not intention, is judged; say I managed to hold onto the corpse, and it turns out this guy is supposed to have it, then I’d still suffer the consequences alone.
Masr Station is as busy as Ramses. I file along toward the exit, steadily gathering speed as I picture the message in a haze of light. Dodging clusters of baggage and refreshment stalls, I can’t help wondering where all these people came from. Intimacy is such a fickle thing, it only takes a quiet train ride for the perfectly familiar prospect of a busy station to look strange.
Already I’m having to block out thoughts of my wife now I’m in Alexandria: I’ve always come after the end of something; a whiff of sea air is all it takes for reflections to start trickling through my head. The only reason they’re relatively at bay is I need to know what the Plant has to say to me. Then there is this sudden, unexplained hunger and I just know the best way to ignite the octagon has to do with food. Should I stop and eat on the way to the hotel?
At the exit the grubby-green polystyrene prayer mats have been rolled into columns and stored upright to one side. I recall how much it used to bother me when the faithful would block the way out, microphones blaring above their heads. Until five weeks ago I never understood why anyone believed it was necessary to pray.
Lesson number six: there are only two things in life—your body, and the possibility of something else. Without that possibility, your body might as well just wither away and die, which it will in either case, sooner than later. The possibility rather turns it into an instrument or a tool, something to work with in a slightly more meaningful setup. That’s why it’s necessary to pray, unless your something else doesn’t require prayers, or you have a post with the Plant.
Only one mat is still spread out on the floor. On the edge of it sits an old peasant woman smiling charmingly into the void. Legs crossed, back bent forward, she mutters in the same level tone, unperturbed by lack of attention; for some reason neither police nor station staff are making any effort to remove her, even though she is clearly a beggar woman and, by order of a widely publicized campaign, they have to excise street characters from public space.
You will eat in a minute, she happens to be saying as I pass. Give me something to eat with.
I bend over and hand her a note, much bigger than I intended. Something about her face is drawing me to her; I realize it is this, not benevolence, that made me stop. Crouching down there, beyond layers of tattered black muslin, beyond the haggard female form, I can make out the contours of my father’s face. It’s a fleeting impression, but haunting.
May He give you without calculation, her tone doesn’t change as she slips the money into her bosom, with frightening alacrity, nor her smile.
It’s hard to tear my eyes off that dark, sculptured visage, familiar and far away at the same time, but my legs are starting to hurt and I’m confirmed in the decision to drop by Andrew’s on the way. Out of habit, not for a logical reason, I ignore the middle-aged men yelling Taxi as I charge ahead. A taxi would save time. Except that I want to walk toward the sea, not seeing it, just knowing it’s there: in fifteen minutes I’ll be inside my Greek client’s fish restaurant sipping beer.
The thought of beer preoccupies me while I slip into Prophet Daniel Lane, where Alexander the Macedonian is thought to be buried, past the used book stands and the used camera store, all closed; and it starts, softly, then ferociously, to rain.
Three minutes from the station, emptiness has already gripped the streets, but it’s less freaky now because the Nawwah is raging. The rain keeps people indoors; actually it’s so absorbing I’ve almost forgotten my troubles: Allen Ginsberg, my wife, the corpse, whether I’m on the right side of the Plant. By the time I push the glass door and head for the table I always take, I’m drenched. A pretty young woman comes up with the menu.
Andrew isn’t here?
No, he is away in Matrouh, she says confidently. You are his friend?
I nod: And you? I’m seeking out her eyes, the way I used to do it with my wife, before we got married. When you’re a man addressing a woman you don’t know, this is the cruelest, sweetest way of saying: I like you; or so my wife used to say.
His little sister. She looks down. I used to study in Athens…
I wonder if I still have an appetite for women, though. Deliberately, I’m picturing my client’s sister naked in the toilet on a train.
Suddenly the thought of beer brings on this searing need to urinate. I can barely stay still while I blurt out my order: Grilled mullet and a plate of squid. Salad and bread, no rice. You can decide on the sauces, but can you get me a beer while I’m indisposed?
The chances are she’s still nodding uncomprehendingly while I lock the bathroom door. It’s like a ground-floor apartment, this restaurant; its bathroom is spacious and homey, unisex, without cubicles or peepholes. It’s not until I’ve relieved myself that I notice a slight break in the electric circuit of the sink light. Then I realize what brought me here.
I look closer: a tiny length of wire is exposed. I ply it out with my Biro. Holding the octagon in both hands, I take a deep breath before I let the current run through it.
JIM MORRISON CLEAR, it says, the letters shimmering in a subdued glow, like the last few embers of a charcoal fire about to die. NK: RECEIPT. REWARD FOR FIFTH SUCCESS TONIGHT. And in smaller type: enjoy grilled mullet, squid.
Before I have time to gape, I’ve managed to burn my finger. No matter how amazing what an octagon has to say, it’s always more amazing the way it disappears: a clear blue flame and nothing, absolutely nothing else. Once it’s gone out, your hand is slightly wet; that’s all. You never have the luxury to mull over the message. I sometimes think it’s this that makes it stick.
After the second beer I practically run to the Cecil Hotel. I want to look at the sea but I’m dying for legitimate privacy; and I promise myself I’ll be back in good time.
The fish seeping gently into my bloodstream, egged on by alcohol, I’m warm and tired and I need to sit still. The rain has gotten harder and the wind whistles through my pores, as if in counterpoint to the fish settling in there, quietly, calmly, a musical expression of arrival at the sea.
It takes a little while before, rushing alongside the seashore, inhaling the sea air in long gulps, I realize this is nothing but relief: knowing that I didn’t get it wrong on the train, that in five weeks I’ve been good enough to be rewarded; but I’m not at all impatient to find out about my prize. I’ve played guessing games with the Plant before now.
Checking in feels that tiny bit smoother than I’m used to. Finally I’m on my back, revising the contents of the message one last time. I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her. I am to expect more madness tonight, happy madness.
I close my eyes and repeat what I have to do, a habit I’ve acquired since the third week. The rain rap-rapping against the panes, delayed and overpowered by the cawing of the wind, I rest my arm on the pillow and just go on repeating the words in the dark.
I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky, instead of delivering the corpse to her; I am to receive something from Nastassja Kinsky… I am to receive something… I am… Kinsky…
When I wake up there is cold coffee by my bedside: a room service order. It’s been years since I fell involuntarily asleep. Overjoyed, I sit up and light a cigarette, remembering the promise I made to myself. For a while I savor the intermittent sound of the rain.
Gradually trouble is returning, though: the sad story with my wife; so long as I can turn it to melancholy I’ll be fine. I exert myself to turn it to melancholy while I shower, shave, change my clothes. It’s not working.
I prop myself up in bed and take out the book, a grim attempt to get distracted; I don’t know why it never occurs to me to switch on the TV. From the unity of existence, though, we’ve moved abruptly onto the afterlife; and something about the business of death is taking my mind off it all.
When religious people tell you that life on earth is temporary, a brief sojourn and never the dwelling place, it’s normally to scare you into practicing their rituals or repeating what they say; as far as I can make it out, this guy is not about that at all, even though he’s using the same language. He’s simply drawing your attention to lesson number six.
When you die it’s just like being alive, he’s saying: the difference is mere detail. All that stuff about heaven and hell, eternity and judgement, it’s all already here. Life and the afterlife, in other words—they’re practically the same thing. I put the book down and close my eyes.
Lesson number seven—a memory of words shimmering in a subdued glow, or was it one of those fleeting text files on my computer screen?—The Plant is both factory and flora. It manufactures, it grows. It holds the copyright to being as well as life, for being is intervention while life is merely flow. It is the sight that startles, the sound that soothes, the odor that induces nostalgia. As of your release from service you will think of the Plant repeatedly on having such hitherto ordinary encounters; and dying, you will be grateful for having been of service to the Plant… The funny thing is, it works. However momentarily, I’ve forgotten my wife. But I’ve ordered two more coffees before I step out onto the wet asphalt, and the words are already fading on my memory plane.
Later on the thought of psychosis repeatedly crossed my mind. Had things failed to correspond with people’s testimonies or gone wrong, I would’ve given in to it, too. As it is, everything is consistent: my work as an attorney, down to the bearded teenage client whom I met with so intensively for a few days last month…
Dawn is descending on Unknown Soldier Circle when I run into my father. He is huddled at the bus stop with his back to the shore, squinting at tomorrow’s paper in the streetlight. It is still windy, an indeterminate respite from the rain. The sea spray reaches all the way to the curb, where I’m bracing my calves when I catch sight of him.
In Alexandria on a weekend, I’ve always waited to watch the sun rise out of the water. That’s why I’ve been tramping downtown, but I couldn’t go back to sleep if I tried. Aside from the usual anxiety of being on the job, I am still brooding over leaving my wife. No amount of Sufi literature is going to put an end to that. I see the backs of her sneakers bouncing effortlessly away under the great bulk of her parka, farther and farther away on the asphalt, such tiny things so effortlessly daring gravity, and it is the saddest image in the world.
When I become aware of an indistinct figure at the bus stop, it’s been a long while since I’ve taken anything in. All I know is I’m crossing the road to the esplanade, where that bus stop happens to be in front of me. The azan for the dawn prayers just sounded. Any minute now, the sun will slice its way through that black-and-white quilt with a monster tossing under it; and when it does, it will hand things back their shape and color, as gradually as my wife’s ankles stepping away. Whatever I do, I don’t want to miss that. Everything else is a blank.
At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a soul since I stepped out of the hotel; and if not for the little man sitting there, the bus stop would’ve been a blank too. I stand back and jiggle my head before I cross over.
I don’t recognize him right away—for some unknown reason, still, nothing could be further from my mind than my father—but before I know it I’m dithering, edging closer. I want to know what kind of street character could brave both Nawaah and esplanade; at night the shore is policed even in the best of weathers, to root out beggars and madmen. What kind of desperado, I want to know, managed to intercept my brooding?
When I first catch sight of his face, I think of the beggar woman I ran into at the station—how come he looks so like her; she too looked like someone, didn’t she… but, for the same unknown reason, probably, I can’t for the life of me remember who.
Involuntarily, almost, I’m sitting next to him on the bench. It is supposed to have three wood planks but the middle one is dislodged and my buttocks sink uncomfortably into the gap; I want to readjust my position but I’m mesmerized by his clothes.
In the house Baba always wore what used to be known in Egypt as a robe de chambre: the same brownish garment, shrunken by years of washing, threadbare at the seams. In summer it covered his underwear, in winter two layers of pajamas. As he grew older he took to going out late at night for tomorrow’s paper in his house wear, something that genuinely saddened Mama.
Now as he looks up, coughing, I recognize the spluttering, elongated, slightly exaggerated squeal that punctuated so many of our evenings.
Then I make out everything at once: the Kastor fabric of his winter pajamas, filthy cuffs giving way to hands barely thicker than the blue veins they contain; ancient sandals exposing a similarly emaciated pair of feet, their incredibly meaty, sharp-edged toenails taking on a whole spectrum of hues as they jut out, looking healthier than everything, and the base of his legs a mesh of diabetic scars and damaged tissue; then the tight, hard rump like roots to the permanently curving spine, dandruff overtaking the wrinkles on the back of his neck; smooth bald spot flanked by willowy silver hair; and the face, my father’s face, toothless, coffee-stained lips and heavy, pinhead stubble, all white, like the loose, leathery skin on some long dead monster; and his reddened nose looking enormous.
Somehow his eyeglasses make it even more enormous than it is: the glasses?
Only now, gazing into the blotched enamel of his glasses, do I remember that my father is dead.
Some two weeks after I got married, five years ago almost to the day, Mama had phoned from Damietta with the news. She sounded unusually calm, I remember. I didn’t want to spoil your honeymoon, she said, but I didn’t have a choice. When I asked her if she was alright she said, May He make this the last of the sorrows; not, she added, the first.
All through my time with my wife I was battling against that enigmatic premonition, pondering over the fact that he hadn’t liked her, and my ever growing doubts about the possibility of happiness in marriage. Somehow grief over my father became linked with the conviction, however secret, that I would one day leave my wife. It was harrowing in other ways, of course. I had never suspected his death could shake me so hard. But it was this that I thought about the most…
He looks up; instantly, it becomes hard not to burst into tears.
Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, he intones his usual welcome: a very commonplace expression that, through sheer warmth, he managed to make entirely his own. Looking delighted, the way he did every time I called him, he grabs my hand and touches his lips to it: a reversal of the patriarchal convention that he alone championed; I can’t think of any other father who did that.
What on earth are you doing here?
Just reading the newspaper. I glance down to make sure it really is tomorrow’s paper—and it is—but I have to raise my hands to my eyes. Can you believe they’re redrafting the constitution again, those sons of a horny woman? Hysterical laughter muffles my tears. He won’t stop ranting about the government even now. It’s like the country is the ranch of their grandfather, the filthy pimps. Then he takes off his glasses. His eyes are clouded. They are round and very small; and it’s as if I peered into them only yesterday. How much more do they want to pilfer?
But, Baba, no one is paying any attention.
How will the corruption stop if all we do is sit and complain?
You’re beginning to sound like them, Fouad. Listen, what’s all this business about classes?
Classes? My name sounds strange now that I’ve learned to think of myself as Joseph Koudelka.
I’m told you’re taking classes. Deep beneath the murk, I can make out a subdued twinkle: the one I saw when he first caught me masturbating, and again when he smelled my reefers. That twinkle was the extent of his disapproval; it always gave an impression of complicity, as if he was telling me that he knew and didn’t mind, but that we could both get into trouble for it. It made him incredibly lovable. Schoolboys, and such. You know what I mean.
Busted, your Honor.
At least you’re free of the stick insect—that’s how the old man referred to my wife, because he found her very tall and very thin but mainly, he said, because she had perfect camouflage: She always appears where you didn’t know she was there, you understand, he would say—and that’s always a good thing. Naturally there will be happiness in your life from now on.
You don’t disapprove?
Dis-what, he bawls, easing into his favorite insult: Curse your father, son of a shoe!
Destroying the family, and all that. We were trying for a baby, you know. None of this bothers you at all? To tell you the truth, Baba, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty.
Fuck off, he says. Naturally, the twinkle comes across in his tone now, there’s reason to feel guilty if all there is to it is the classes. That, maybe, you should think about. Not that it makes you any less of a donkey to feel guilty at all. What’s there to feel guilty about in this world
Botching my secret work?
If you did that, you would be instantly dispatched to where you can’t feel a thing. At least, he adds equivocally, not in the way you’d expect to feel it.
You mean—right, I stutter… but… how do you know what would happen to me if I fucked up?
Same way I know about the stick insect and the classes.
I almost say: Is it true you can’t feel anything once you’re dead?
There are certain questions I’m not allowed to answer, he stops me just in time. And one thing you mustn’t mention while you’re with me whatever you do, you understand?
Okay, I nod. I think I know what that thing is.
Shall we have a little walk then?
As far as I know that’s allowed—hands on knees, he is heaving himself up with a mighty sigh, the way he did every time he had to get up in his lifetime, as if there was nothing more difficult in the world—so long as we both act normal. It’s very exaggerated, but that’s what makes it touching. At some point I will just go, you understand, and you act as if nothing happened.
There is no rain still; even the wind has let up. Only, as we move along the shoreline at his excruciating pace—it always used to annoy me how deliberately slow the old man walked—sea spray keeps splashing our faces. He has the same old tendency to lag a step or two behind, head bent slightly to one side, hands clasped together over the small of his back. As I slow down and stop to keep pace with him, it surprises me how little death changes in a man.
You remember Tante Faiza, Baba?
Whatever became of the midget?
She must be ninety this year. Ninety-two, in fact. But she’s alive and kicking. Mama says she’s got a suitor.
Didn’t I tell you she would see everyone to the grave, the witch
Eventually I put my arm round his shoulders and leave it up to him. Humming and laughing, we plod along the seashore, my father and I, and it’s as if we haven’t stopped doing it since I was three. In Alexandria, all through my childhood, we would often have this same walk in the evening while I drank my carton of milk: the prerequisite for getting a new matchbox car. His hand on my head, Baba’s pace was too slow even for my tiny steps.
Barely perceptibly, the black water is taking on color. In the distance, a faint orange tint infusing the blue gray turning gray white, the outline of the citadel begins to appear. Ahh-lan, ahh-lan, my father greets the red disk coming up behind the minaret, beaming at me. Naturally, he adds, daybreak makes no difference at all. I can barely stop myself from laughing.
Fouad, he sounds devastated. You must kiss your mother for me.
You’re not serious?
Believe it or not, I miss the old bitch.
How I wish Mama was with us, I suddenly think, out loud.
You can never tell your mother of this—
Any more than of your secret work. Curse your father, he begins—
Son of a shoe!
The oddest part of this is there’s nothing uncanny about it.
It’s as if I never married, as if he never died, as if I really was in Alexandria on a weekend.
Birds, white and streamlined, are circling the stone hedge and fluttering out to sea. Their calls seem to echo the Nawwah; a car or two whizz past and, before I appreciate the fact, it’s light. We walk on a little. The streets have filled up when I suggest we have a breakfast of coffee and croissant at the Trianon Café. The rain has returned and my father is slowing down even more, oohing and ahing all along the esplanade. He stops to light a cigarette, but every time the wind blows out his match; when he finally manages to bring the tip of the cigarette in contact with the flame, a fat drop of rain lands right on top of it.
I glance at him impatiently, but he keeps trying.
You’re a good boy, Fouad, he suddenly turns to me, mumbling. I am your reward.
But it’s as if he didn’t say anything; he just struggles on with the matches.
So are we going for croissant or what?
Always impatient, he says, like that fat mother of yours!
Then we’re sitting opposite each other by the rain-splattered window, there is bright sunlight outside, and the aroma of coffee fills my nostrils. The croissants are hot and crisp, but my father is smoking. I am about to tell him that I love him when he winks, nodding toward the waitress. So I look up: she is beautiful; for the first time since Allen Ginsberg, though I don’t realize it yet, something stirs in my groin while I look at a woman.
Yours if you want her, he says, naturally.
Baba, I scowl. Please!
Anyway I am going to go to the toilet, he mutters to himself, getting up. Curse the father of your mother, my good man. It is barely audible. The son of a bitch is going to discipline me…
Baba! He looks back.
Are you sure it’s okay to up and leave the stick insect?
Yes, Fouad, he smiles suddenly, my little donkey. I’m sure.
The waitress smiles back very sweetly, anyway. Later, when I slip her a scrap of paper with my number, she will even blow me a kiss. Now my watch says eight thirty and Baba is not back from the toilet. I get up and follow inside to look for him. All the cubicle doors are open. There is no one there. Back in the Cecil Hotel lobby, I’ve barely wiped the tears off my face when my coffee arrives. I sip it slowly, grazing the place with my eyes. For once the anxiety of being on the job is overpowered by a different emotion—grief. I feel exactly the way I felt in the second two weeks of my marriage, but somehow I know it is temporary. There’s a tremendous sense of gratitude, too, which helps, but where on earth is Nastassja Kinsky?
When I open the door to my room at nine thirty, exasperated, there is an elderly woman on the edge of my bed. She is dressed very elegantly in an auburn three-piece, her long, snow-white hair tied back in a bun. In the way she sits and especially after she starts talking, I appreciate her regal bearing. She has the well-heeled composure of a princess, haughty and upright.
Strange, I’m thinking, that she looks so incredibly familiar: I am sure I know this face; and her voice, I know I’ve heard it before. These recognition games are getting tiring—I mean: maybe I’m just projecting—but I can’t help noticing a resemblance between her and my father.
I dare say you mispronounce my name, Monsieur Koudelka. She grins. I have brought you a small gift, rather valuable I may add. I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting for long. You were generous with your money last night, I didn’t think you would begrudge me your time today.
While she stares squarely into my eyes—is it my imagination or is she snickering?—I realize she is the beggar woman from Masr Station.
Oh my God, I begin.
You will excuse me, Monsieur Koudelka, but I must catch a train in half an hour. Here, she hands me what looks like a giant termite. It is the isoptera, she enunciates. It will instruct you as to what you should do with it on your return to Cairo.
Only now she gets up, striding straight to the door.
Monsieur Koudelka, she stops and turns, her hand on the doorknob.
This will be your last assignment.
My… for the—
Safe journey, Monsieur Koudelka.
While she shuts the door behind her I let myself flop onto the bed. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that it’s over, that there will no longer be a Plant in my life. Neither wife nor Plant, I mumble, getting comfortable and peeling off my clothes. Before I fall asleep it also registers that the prospect of another boy is vague and mildly repulsive. Memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and all those in between seem to come from a different world, alien and isolated. Without wanting to, I am picturing the eyes of Andrew’s sister: the way they glistened in the tungsten light, and when she averted them, looking down…
I wake to the sound of the rain, the isoptera describing a perfect circle next to my head on the pillow. For a while I simply watch it, wondering, with relative calm, what it might be saying to me. Then, just to see if I can make anything of the faint buzz that accompanies its motion, I place it on the bedside table and bring my ear in contact with the wood, pressing hard. At first I can only hear static, but gradually something else is coming through.
What are you doing, you donkey? I can make out my father’s voice, weak, barely audible, but undeniably his. You are to keep this peculiar mouthpiece for when you have a real situation, classes and such. Then you can consult me. If you try and listen to it all the time you’ll wear it out. And no, he adds, as if he could hear me thinking, we can’t have a conversation through it. Now switch off the tiny button at the back and keep it safe. At that the voice fades; there is nothing but static.
I am naturally spellbound for a few minutes, then find the button he mentioned, hidden where the last segment of a termite’s abdomen would be, I get ready for departure. On the way out, my assignment over, I switch my cell phone back on. I don’t notice it at first but gradually, insidiously, an unbearable joy is taking hold of me. I don’t think downtown Alexandria has ever looked so beautiful in the early evening.
Once again I will walk to Masr Station: I want to take in the streets.
I am reading about the straight path—the one that, mimicking divine oneness, connects life with the afterlife and back again—when my cellphone startles me. There’s a young man eying me but I haven’t been paying much attention. I guess that, in five weeks, I’ve developed a particular look; not all my male lovers have been agents of the Plant, and Egypt is full of young men seeking out middle-aged lechers like me: they get a useful connection if not money; they get a desperate, consuming passion. There’s some desire—I won’t deny that—but I can’t be bothered to act on it at all. I’m far more interested in the characteristics of the path.
Hi. The voice is soft and coquettish; I put the book down. I just thought I’d get your name.
Who is this?
Forgotten already? We met this morning at the Trianon Café—
Alright, I exclaim, grinning from ear to ear in spite of myself.
Well, I didn’t get your name either, did I? I’m so happy you called.
My name is Mohgah, the waitress says. You may not be aware of it yet, she giggles—as I am picturing her—irresistibly. But I am your destiny.
First published in Miranda Literary Magazine, editor Ron Samul