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Tarzan of Palmers Green
One winter evening as I was leaving Wood Green tube station on my way home, I passed by the local newspaper stand as usual. I picked up a copy of the paper, put it in my bag and left the station. After having dinner with my wife and child, I sat down and began leafing through the paper. On the third page, my eyes fell on a large photo bearing a face that was very familiar to me, and under the photo ran the caption: “Tarzan sighted in Palmers Green.” From the news report I gleaned that the Tarzan in question was an individual of Libyan background who had been found in front of his house naked as the day he was born.
I rang up a friend and told him what I’d read in the paper. I told him I knew who the man was but that his name was unfamiliar to me. The newspaper gave his name as Al-Mabruk Abdel Salam. My friend laughed and quickly replied: “That’s Mo.”
I know “Mo” from my circle of Libyan friends, we all called him “Mo” and I had assumed that “Mo” was short for Mohammad or Mahmud. My friend gave me Mo’s number, and I rang him up. His English wife answered and told me Mo was in a bad state and wasn’t taking anyone’s calls. I asked her to pass on a message and left my number with her. Late in the evening three days later, my phone rang. I greeted Mo warmly and asked how he was, and it was soon evident that he was in excellent spirits. I reproached him for not letting me know he’d moved to Palmers Green, and then I found an opportune moment and asked him about the news report. He laughed and sighed: “God, what a humiliation!” He added that the whole issue had created more of a stir than it deserved and that he didn’t want to go into it over the phone, but we could meet up the next evening in the café close to Wood Green bus station.
The next day, I was sitting in the café sipping coffee and leafing through a paper when Mo arrived. We fell to chatting, and then, without further ado, Mo broached the topic that had brought us together. On the day that that shameful calamity had occurred, he said, he’d taken the day off because his pregnant wife had an appointment with the doctor and he had to stay home to look after their child. When his wife left around noon, the child was sleeping, so he thought he’d go and take a shower. He stripped, went in to shower, and then stepped out of the bathroom without anything on. The moment he walked out, he found himself face to face with a stranger who was standing on the bottom steps of the wooden staircase looking as if he was on his way upstairs. Mo said: “I realised it was just a bloody burglar who’d sneaked into the house thinking everyone was out. When he saw me he got confused, and before you could bat an eyelid he’d darted for the door and leapt outside, and next thing I knew, I was leaping behind him in pursuit and I had run out into the street, entirely oblivious to the fact that I hadn’t a single thing on. I ran and ran until I felt my lungs would burst, but that bloody thief disappeared like a grain of salt inside a glass of water. At that instant, the awkwardness of the situation suddenly dawned on me, and I pulled myself together and started to go home, but when I arrived I found the door of the house shut.”
I couldn’t hold back a chuckle. Mo looked at me reproachfully and said: “Now that’s malice; you’re enjoying what’s happened to me, just like the rest of them.” I apologised and comforted him, saying that the worst adversities are those that make others laugh. Mo said: “Just put yourself in my shoes! It’s cold, you’re knackered, the door is shut and your kid’s cooped up indoors, and you’re sitting outside, a spectacle for everyone who goes past, and you don’t know any of your neighbours because you’ve just moved in. You wouldn’t wish such a fix on your worst enemy.”
He said he’d knocked on his neighbour’s door and his neighbour’s wife had opened it. The moment her eyes fell on him she had screamed and shut the door in his face and then she’d called the police, and less than a quarter of an hour later a police car drew up outside the house. Two officers got out and led him to the car. He tried to explain to them what had happened but they asked him to keep quiet. At the police station he told the officer in charge what had happened and pleaded with him to be taken back home because his child was all alone in the house. The officer gave in and drove him back, and two officers forced the door open. Mo said: “We found the child asleep, and I put on some clothes, woke him up, and with the child in my arms we returned to the police station where the officer in charge continued with his report. As I was leaving the station, I found a photographer and a couple of journalists waiting outside, and the moment the photographer saw me, he took a few shots, and the journalists besieged me with stupid and annoying questions, which I refused to answer. Then I got into a cab with my child and drove home.” Mo asked me whether the story had reached our friends, and I admitted I’d been in touch with at least two of them, and I believed they had told the rest.
He stared at me in reproach, then got up and took his leave. The next evening, Mo rang and told me that when leaving the house that morning, he’d found a large signboard standing by his door, which read: “Here lives Tarzan.”
The Good Woman of Turnpike Lane
Turnpike Lane is an area in north London I had heard little about until the day a friend of mine let me know he’d located some suitable accommodation for me there. At the time, I had been renting a small room in a two-bedroom apartment in Willesden Green; the landlord and his wife occupied one room, I lodged in the smaller one, and we shared the living room, kitchen, and bathroom. With my friend, I took the tube to Turnpike Lane, and emerged into an area pulsing with life. At the flat, we found the landlady, an Indian woman, waiting for us. The flat was part of a large house that had been converted into five small flats. She led us up to the last one, on the third floor. It was a small flat containing a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. I was happy with it, we agreed on the rent, and I let her know I’d be moving in at the end of the following week.
During my first week, I got to know Mrs Catherine Smith, a middle-aged lady who worked for the local council and was nearing retirement. She was an Englishwoman of the traditional kind, which nowadays is thought to be practically extinct, very good-natured, and went to great pains to turn a neighbour like myself into a friend and a brother. Had my mother met her she would have said: “What a waste – this woman deserves better!” She lived alone, like me, in a two-bedroom flat on the ground floor with a small garden. Every time she saw me she’d insist on inviting me in for a cup of tea. It was through her that I came to know the occupants of three of the other flats. But it was also she who warned me against the occupant of the fourth flat, Mr Colin McCarthy. The way she talked about him made me wish to heaven our paths would never cross.
One night, as I was sitting alone in my flat watching a film on TV, I heard a knock on the door. I lowered the volume, got up and opened the door, and standing before me I saw a short, unshaven old man in a heavy coat and a beret, who hastened to apologise for disturbing me at this late hour and told me that he lived in the flat just under my own, but had lost the key to his flat, he didn’t know how or where. He’d rung the landlady, knowing she kept a spare key, but he hadn’t found her in and had left a message, and he was hoping I might let him wait inside until the landlady arrived. I invited him in and he thanked me, took his shoes off, and stepped into the living room, taking a seat next to the couch where I was sitting.
Feeling a little awkward, I offered him a drink. He asked for a cup of tea, which I promptly brought, and then went back to the sofa. A deep silence descended between us, and I resolved not to be the one to break it. As if realising this, he began the conversation. He said his name was Colin McCarthy, and I introduced myself in turn. I found out that he used to be a maths teacher at a secondary school and had retired several years ago. He lived alone, relying entirely on his pension, and he’d been in this flat for ten years and didn’t want to leave it, despite the landlady’s persistent efforts to rent out the flat to someone else for a price four times higher than what he was paying. I also found out he used to be married years ago, and that he had a son and daughter from his former marriage whom he would see every now and then. The son was twenty-five and worked as an accountant at an insurance company in Cardiff, and the daughter was twenty-three and worked as an actress with a theatre company in Manchester. He was delighted when he heard I was from Libya, because he’d lived there for some time during the sixties, working as a teacher at one of the schools for the children of foreigners employed by the oil companies in Tripoli. Less than a quarter of an hour later, my reserve towards him gradually began to ebb away as I listened to him recount a story of the passionate romance he’d had with a Jewish woman called Julia who had worked as a secretary at one of the oil companies and whom he’d met at a reception at the British Embassy.
He went on talking to me about a Tripoli I had never known, even though I had heard bits and pieces about it here and there from other Libyans who were older than me and used to work for the oil companies. It was a life that had nothing to do with the life I had led as a young boy or the life led by thousands of other people living in the old city in which I was born and grew up, or in any of the other Libyan cities. The least one could say was that it was a life of five-star hotels, villas, parties and pleasure trips. A life we only saw on cinema screens, which I never imagined was actually lived by people only a few kilometres from the old city walls. I remember I greatly enjoyed listening to him talk, and the truth is I even felt the bite of a certain envy in my heart, and I must admit I began to experience great doubts about what Mrs Smith had told me about him, for the man before me was a good-natured, amiable character who had the most pleasant and most interesting things to say. We continued talking until the landlady arrived with the key, and then he took his leave of me, thanking me for my hospitality and extracting from me a promise to visit.
That night saw the beginning of a wonderful friendship that lasted for years, and we remained in regular contact even after I left the flat, and Turnpike Lane, for other parts. On that night I realised that Mrs Smith’s kindly nature would not prevent her from getting her just desserts and, from that night on, I began to experience a sense of displeasure whenever I ran into her and we were forced to exchange a few words of conversation. On that night, after Mr Colin McCarthy had left my flat, I kept asking myself what could lead a woman as amiable as she was to tarnish the reputation of a neighbour as good-natured as Mr McCarthy, and these questions plunged me into great bitterness and disappointment. And it seems that Mrs Smith must have discerned coldness in my manner, and perhaps she registered my disinclination to meet her, as well as my change of sentiments, and she began to avoid me, thus sparing me unnecessary trouble.
In March 2000, I had a call from someone who introduced himself as John McCarthy and said he was the son of my friend Colin. He said Colin had passed away a month before, and he wanted my address so he could send me something the deceased had left me. I gave him my condolences and read out my address to him. One evening, a week later, I returned home and found a package waiting. I opened the package and found inside an old photo album containing photographs from his time in Tripoli, and underneath each photograph he had inscribed the date and the place where it had been taken and the names of the people in it. On one page of the album, my eyes fell on a large photograph taken of him with a good-looking woman standing with her right arm around his waist, while his left arm encircled hers. Beneath, he had written: “With Catherine Smith, al-Sharshara, Tarhuna, 1963.”
Both stories translated by Sophia Vasalou and published in Banipal 40 – Libyan Fiction