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Homeowners have no idea that the task of distributing menus can be so difficult, nor that it requires sophistication, expertise, and years of experience. There is a particular art to treating the menu, a certain way of placing it in letterboxes, and this art requires arduous months of practice, running around, and skill. The old man (the same one who rushed outside brandishing a broom and threatening me with the police if he ever saw a menu in his house) hadn’t known I had given the matter careful, even exhaustive, consideration before pushing a menu through his letterbox, just as the thirty-year-old who set his dog on me didn’t know it was I who had avoided his dog’s teeth when I pushed the menu through his letterbox. Chief among all the arts and rituals of Menu Distribution is that the clothing worn for it must be comfortable, first and foremost: for example, jeans are in no way suitable. Neither are blazers. Tracksuits are very comfortable to move in, as are trainers.
Sometimes I kidded myself that I was out for a jog, just to forget the tedium of the work. In this way, the method of folding a menu and shoving it through a letterbox becomes an important task. Among the attributes of a menu distributor are those of skill and vigilance at every house. I had to read signs and symbols, establish whether or not there was a dog in the house, or request fellow menu distributors not to deposit a menu from the restaurant in that letterbox. You must add to this a keen sense of hearing – a menu distributor must hone this sense in order to divine what is moving around within the house into which he is dropping a menu; it is imperative that he learns to distinguish between the tread of a human being and the pad of a dog. I open the letterbox on the front door, and hear swift, staccato bare footfalls . . . but they are not the footsteps of a man. At once, I know whether the floor of the house is wooden or carpeted, I concentrate on the footfalls, and I flick the menu inside without letting my fingers go through the letterbox. I retreat a few steps and then there is a BAM!! as the dog crashes against the door, followed by barking and attempts to break down the door and attack me.
Ali Guevara, pizza-making veteran and professional menu distributor, told me one day about Club Studio in the town centre of Runcorn, for whom he had indefatigably distributed menus for twenty years until it became the only work that he couldn’t renounce. He lifted his glass to his mouth and took a long pull of beer, and when he placed the glass back on the table, his speech was exhausted: “I know every house in Runcorn by now – everyone who lives here has become a friend of mine. Even when their kids have grown up, they can still see me delivering pizza menus.” Then he laughed so much his glass shook.
That was in the early days of my menu-distributing career. Ali Guevara was my mentor. When I arrived in Runcorn, the owner of Mama Pizza chose him to supervise me in the task of distributing menus. Ali Guevara was a bearded man who wore military jacket and trousers. There wasn’t enough time to discuss Communism or Marx or Che Guevara. There was time to distribute menus, during which he told me about guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Bolivia, about the warrior Guevara, and the abomination of Capitalism. There was time for him to tell me that he loved Runcorn, and the pizza-makers and menu distributors, because they were true Communists who worked night and day to make ends meet. I had time to nod my head in agreement as we jogged from house to house, delivering menus. All the house-owners knew Ali Guevara and whenever they saw him they raised a hand in greeting. At one house, there was an old man reading in his garden when I arrived, accompanying Ali Che, and he turned his eyes away from his book, stood up and raised a hand to declare: “My respects, Commandante.” Che approached the old man with confident footsteps and presented him with a menu, saying: “My respects, Comrade.” Then he turned about face and came backto me so we could carry on with our work.
When he had finished delivering a thousand menus, we decided to take a short break on the river bank. We bought sandwiches, crisps and a couple of beers. Ali Guevara told me that beer was the drink of the struggling masses, like us. We clinked our bottles against each other’s to toast the first day of the rest of my life as a menu distributor, then he promoted me to Assistant Commandante and we pledged to keep the faith and uphold the spirit of our fathers in the struggle, like Che Guevara and the Italian Communists killed by Mussolini.
It was then that I discovered that Ali Guevara was crazy. At first I thought he was play-acting, or fooling around, but after that meal I realised he was round the bend, highly strung, and it was . . . difficult to discuss or refute his ideas. That being said, I liked the game and decided to become his officer, to become Sancho Panza, squire to Don Quixote and his companion-in-arms during the Windmill Wars. After lunch, the Commandante told me he was taking a siesta, before standing up and walking off carrying his backpack. I was exhausted myself, but I really tried to imitate him when he sang “Bella, Ciao”, an Italian Communist song from the Second World War. We passed houses, alleyways, streets, and he sang without stopping. He raised a hand to greet some house-owners standing on their doorsteps. Everyone called him “Commandante”, or “Leader”, or “Che”. Even the poorer families, the ones who imposed their racism on foreigners, harboured respect for him. He told me that he had entered this street every day to peaceably distribute menus, but some racists and gang members had tried to make trouble. He fell upon them and hit out at them, and when they had fled back to their homes he had sat on the street corner for five hours waiting to see if any of them would return to attack him. When they got tired of staying indoors, they emerged, requesting amnesty and reconciliation. In this way, everyone in the area came to respect him and no one dared lay a finger on him. He went on a little, saying that until that moment, no Libyan menu distributer but him had been able to work in that area, and that was the prime reason that pizza restaurant owners employed him to deliver menus.
By a narrow alley was a long wall. We stopped. The Commandante looked at me and said: “You will wait for me here while I go inside to meet one of them, then I will return and we will finish distributing the menus. You must guard the area. If you smell any danger, call for the Commandante and I’ll be here. Do you understand, Comrade?” I nodded my head in affirmation and he gave me a couple of cigarettes to amuse myself with.
I sat on the pavement and put my backpack down beside me. I took out my MP3 player, put the headphones in, and relaxed as I listened to the Rolling Stones. I was getting into “Through and Through”, moving my head in time with the drums and harmonising with the voice of Keith Richards. I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. I thought about what was in store for me. I thought a lot about the pizza-makers whom I had met last night, and whom I would meet later today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. I thought about how I’d be raking it in, and how then I could escape Runcorn for London. I thought about what the Commandante was doing in that house in the narrow alley, then I thought about his ideals and his madness and about what had led to that madness. Khalil, who made pizza at Mama Pizza, had told me the night before that Ali Guevara had been a Communist in Libya and had been sent to prison in the seventies during the war between the students and the government. He left prison in the eighties and immediately came to Britain, carrying his dreams of Communism in his cartridge pack and military shirts. I thought for a long time about everything as the heat of the sun bore down on my head and my body. I couldn’t feel anything but a surrender to my drowsiness.
I opened my eyes and found the Commandante in front of me, and he was talking. “Through and Through” had finished and now I was listening to “Let it Be” by The Beatles. I took my headphones out and asked him what he had said, so he pointed to his own bag, dangling from his back, and asked me where mine was. I looked around me, but didn’t find any bag. Astonished, I stood up and told him I had put it right here. The Commandante turned right and left, and saw some kids standing around smoking weed. They were wearing black coats and tracksuits, and kept putting their hands inside their pants to fiddle with their cocks. The Commandante looked at them and said: “Sons of bitches – you dare to touch my comrade?” Then he added: “Those are the bastards who stole the bag and menus.” He moved towards the narrow alley he had just come from and asked me to follow him. I was scared – they were many and the Commandante was only one. I was afraid a fight would break out between him and those youths; something bad might happen to him, and I could lose my job and spend weeks behind bars.
Once in the alleyway we went into a dirty house, choked with the smell of dust, smoke and alcohol. In the living room into which I had followed the Commandante, I found a wheelchair surrounded by cigarette butts, beer bottles and beer cans, and dried up food. There was a naked woman in her fifties on the tattered red sofa. Once she saw me, she pulled a filthy cover up to hide herself. I was shocked at this scene, whereas she just smiled archly and asked me who I was. The Commandante told her that I was a new comrade, that I had been subjected to thievery, and that it was time to take revenge. I tried to tell him to forget it, but he scorned this and swore to avenge me against those “Capitalists and Mafiosi”. On hearing this the woman laughed and said to him: “Fine, Comrade. I know no one can stop you when you are avenging the honour of your companion.” The Commandante turned towards me and told me I had to sit there and he would come back after teaching them a lesson they would never forget. He leaned over and picked up a baseball bat. When I followed him to the door, he raised the bat to my chest and said: “You will stay here, and you will not follow me. Do you understand? If you follow me, I’ll kill you.” And then he left.
The woman told me that I’d have to serve myself, that the kitchen was in front of me, and I could get myself a cup of tea if I liked. She pointed to the wheelchair and added that she was confined to it, and would not be able to serve me herself. I didn’t pay any attention to what she was saying, and asked if the Commandante would be able to take on about ten kids by himself. She placed a hand on my head and laughed, saying he was too much of a coward to fight even a child, so how could he fight ten young men? “Huh?” I wondered as my jaw dropped.
She said he would tour around the street and then return carrying the bag, saying he had taught them a lesson they’d never forget. “And the bag?” I asked her.
“Ah yes, the bag . . . he took it from you himself and hid it while you were sleeping in the sunshine. He told me all about it.”
“But why would he do that?”
The woman laughed again and said: “So he’ll be a hero, of course! Ha!”
I guessed that the Commandante was sleeping with this woman. I looked carefully at her tired, sad face. There was still some beauty hidden behind her heartbreak and self-pity. She turned towards me and said: “Yes. I am sleeping with Ali Guevara, and have been for many years . . . he doesn’t claim to be a hero in the bedroom. Ha!” I smiled and tried to busy myself looking around the living room. She asked me my name and I replied, and I asked her name and she replied: “Natalia.” I smiled at her and said: “Nice to meet you.” She nodded and smiled and looked up at the ceiling. “You seem like a nice boy. How old are you? Eighteen? Ah . . . you’re very young. I’m friends with all the pizza-makers and menu distributors, you know. All of them are over twenty-five . . . Taher, you know him? The restaurant owner?”
“He was my boyfriend, before he turned religious and grew a beard. He was the best of all the men I loved, but he broke up with me when he became religious. I tried to meet him in Mama Pizza so we could at least be just friends, but he scarpered and didn’t want to meet me. Isn’t that a shame? Everyone thinks Taher has been religious since he came out of his mother’s womb, but no one knows that he used to be an open-minded man and a lover of life, who loved everyone and went out to parties, and his smile never left his face. He’s become so gloomy since he turned religious; isn’t that a shame?”
“Yes, it’s a real shame.”
I asked her to tell me Taher’s story, and how he transformed into such a religious man after being so liberal and open, but before I could finish the question we heard a knock on the door. I stood up, headed to the door and opened it. I found the Commandante standing there, baseball bat in his right hand and my bag in his left. “Take it, Comrade, take your bag. Those sons of bitches cowered in fear of me. They apologised to me, and craved your pardon. Come on now, let’s get to work, Comrade . . . Come!”
Translated by Leri Price for Banipal 40 – Libyan Fiction from a novel in progress, Mama Pizza.
This chapter was published in the original Arabic on www.kikah.com