Had I made a mistake?
Let me try again.
There are several buttons on the telephone, one of which redials the last number. Just . . . the touch of a finger, and I started to wait expectantly for the soft clicks to finish. Her slow, deliberate voice came to me again, tired and a little dry: her voice from a home, a house, a flat, all of whose keys I kept with me.
She didn’t wait for me to show surprise or anger, but proceeded to continue a conversation that she had started goodness only knows how long ago, about her friends in executive positions, in popular commands, and even . . . in politics – friends through whom many problems could be solved. Her word carried complete conviction in their eyes, they would respond to her at once.
For a moment, I thought that I was listening to a recorded message. There was an echo like that intangible hollowness that comes from recorded voices. For a moment, I almost forgot that it was coming from my sister's house, from the telephone that stood on the desk facing the wide window, when I suddenly came to, overtaken by a sudden panic.
A strange thing. Utterly unexpected.
A quarter past twelve now.
I need an hour to get there, to establish the truth of the situation. I put down the receiver, putting an end to the conversation from my side, and began to imagine the faraway, locked flat, three rooms, and a spacious hall, empty except for some old newspapers that my sister had not got rid of before travelling with her husband. When I open the door, I am struck by the smell of locked up places, so heavy that I can scarcely see its outline in the void. I enter hurriedly, turn the electricity switches on again and open the windows that face each other to let the air circulate, not knowing whether they will disperse the smell or whether I will just not inhale it, but in any case I didn't want it up my nostrils.
When did I hear her voice for the first time?
I can’t tell exactly, it was possibly during my first or second visit. I was doing what my sister had told me to. Open the windows, especially the balcony window, turn on the radio at full volume, let other people (identity unknown) know that life had not finished, that there was still a presence there, that the house had a man in charge. Despite the fact that it contained only a few pieces of furniture, and the kitchen contained nothing but the refrigerator that she had sold, an old-fashioned electric washing machine and a small radio.
Her husband was afraid of thieves getting in. He instructed me not to stop coming, and to keep coming back regularly. There were lines in their letters telling me to go and make sure that the gas taps and electricity switches were turned off when I left, as well as the water taps, and to give the porter full instructions, with a good tip.
Perhaps it was during my second visit that the telephone rang. I looked at it. Who could know I was here? Perhaps it was one of my brother-in-law’s friends, or one of my sister's friends, asking about them or not knowing they had gone away. I lifted the receiver, and was taken aback by her voice.
“Hello . . .”
I shall never forget its slow rhythm the first time, the sign of a woman who has reached a good age. At first she said that she was a close neighbour, living in the same street, she laughed, she was sixty-seven years old:
— Your mother’s age, that is . . .
I said politely, my surprise obvious:
— May God grant you a ripe old age . . .
She said that she was an old woman, but she was still very energetic, with a long history of service to society and of political activity. She wanted to become acquainted, to discuss local affairs, she wanted to put her experience at the service of the environment she lived in, and she had therefore begun with those she could see had some awareness . . .
Until that moment I had been sure that she meant my brother-in-law, since no one knew of my repeated visits except the doorman, and I had no connection with any of the residents of the district, for it was a long way from the areas where I lived and worked.
She is elderly, she must have time on her hands, and she may have several projects. And because I’m not a resident and don’t know anything about the problems of the suburb, have never met her and don’t know her, I didn’t want to explain all this to her, I didn’t care. My replies were curt, reflecting my desire to end the conversation, and I didn’t think much about her motives. What she’d said, even if she had stopped before her last laugh, was sarcastic and impertinent!
The following week, as soon as I’d finished opening the door, the telephone started ringing. Before I’d even regained my breath after climbing the staircase, I hurried towards it.
— Hello . . .
— Hello . . .
I said it with a suspicious terseness. She said that she hoped she wasn’t disturbing me, but she always pursued kind-hearted people who could give. I said that I needed to excuse myself for a minute (I wanted to open the windows, to refresh the stale, stagnant air) without telling her that I had just arrived and that there were things I had to do as soon as I came in, but she went on as if she hadn’t been listening. She said that for years the suburb had been very quiet, its spacious houses surrounded by gardens, and the streets lined with trees. There were grand, comfortable hotels frequented by the wealthy, not just from Egypt but from European countries as well. The best known was the hotel overlooking the street leading to the Japanese garden that included a garden of rare trees, some from China, and plants brought from Brazil and Australia, whose owners had tended them and watered them until they grew to maturity. The building was completely covered with green plants and flowers. Every Sunday evening an orchestra would play classical music, and after dinner the dance music would begin . . . she sighed, she said that it was a wonderful, beautiful time, but she didn’t want to give me a headache with this sort of detail known to no one knew but the local residents, er . . . the elderly like her, but unfortunately everything had gone to seed after the revolution broke out, and they’d built factories, then the workers had followed, and pollution and overcrowding . . . she said that she cleaned the glass on the tables, and the desk and the picture frames, she wiped them carefully, not allowing any specks of dust in the place where she lived, but what could she do in the face of cement dust falling from the sky? After a few minutes, just a few minutes, she would be overtaken by dust covering the glass again, until she could write her name clearly among the grains of cement.
— Imagine . . .
I said this was terrible, but . . .
She interrupted me, saying that she hoped she hadn’t disturbed me, but in any case she was older than my mother. Once again, I heard her clipped, mocking laughter. She said that she wouldn’t beat about the bush, but on the basis of her long experience in political action, she wanted to start a project that could be embraced by men and women who understood their societies’ ailments precisely. She said that she would be delighted if I were to accept her invitation. I said that that would also make me happy.
She said that she was looking forward to meeting me, and that she was inviting me to have tea with a number of people who understood the situation.
Before I could reply the conversation suddenly stopped, and I didn’t know . . . had the line been cut off, or had she suddenly fallen silent . . . I looked at the telephone, the telephone from which no sound had ever emerged the whole time I had spent here. Wednesday of each week was the day I came, since my work schedule allowed me some free time on this day, but I went not to check, but because I wanted to be alone, away from the bustle of work, family problems, and the gossip of friends. I had noticed that my yearning for solitude, my desire to be away from other people had increased over the last few years, but this lady had begun to keep me awake. The phone would begin to ring as I climbed the stairs, as soon as I walked in, or two or three minutes later. She would begin with her excuses, then would talk about her long experience in political action for the beauty and peace of the suburb in the past, before the factories were built, the workers appeared and the suburb went downhill . . .
Just imagine! The housing estate that they’ve built at the end of the street! Day and night, they are advertising on television that it comprises six thousand flats, all of it built on the area occupied by Shaykh al-Muraghi’s, house, the Shaykh of al-Azhar . . . it was a beautiful house, surrounded by a garden even more beautiful than the hotel garden . . . and in its place there are now six thousand flats . . . Good God! . . .
I was almost certain that she knew my arrival times. Perhaps she somehow looked out for me on Wednesdays, so I decided to change the time, and began to come regularly on Friday rather than Wednesday. I would spend an hour listening to the sounds of daily life coming from the street, car horns, the shouts of young children, different sorts of noises all mixed together. For a long time I contemplated the features of a life that had been brim full before my sister had travelled. I didn’t change anything’s place — clothes scattered around, my sister’s daughter’s toys, a magnifying glass belonging to her husband, collections of photos, as if they’d left in a hurry for a short stay away measured in hours, not in months. I’d shut the windows and turned off the electricity, gas and water taps. As I was walking towards the front door, and was about to leave, the telephone rang. I answered it in a rather uncivil tone, but she took no notice, immediately launching into a speech about her projects that she had submitted to the political command; she wanted to plant trees along the streets again, to give each pupil in primary school a litre of milk, to spread the idea of wearing gloves in winter, out of concern for hands that must work in the future, and to regulate travelling salesmen, especially those selling spicy drinks or candy floss. I hummed and haaed, but I didn’t want to tell her that I was about to leave, so as not to reveal that the flat would be left empty. So I put up with it until suddenly she stopped.
I changed my routine and no longer came on a particular day, but she didn’t let me escape. In fact, I noticed some correspondence between the telephone ringing and the days of the week. On Saturdays, she would try to find me as soon as I had got past the door, on Mondays after I had shut the windows, on Thursdays a quarter of an hour before I left, and on Sundays after I had turned on the bath pump. How often I asked myself, why did I not keep quiet? Why was I in such a hurry to answer? Perhaps because I wanted to get to the bottom of what made her tick. She took no notice of how civil or uncivil I was, sometimes she would answer pointed questions, and sometimes she would just go on talking without taking any notice, about the transport system, about the holes in the roads, her concern for the second hand book trade, organising campaigns to collect old clothes and distribute them to the needy, medicines and insecticides . . . and then she would express her alarm at the spread of rats, at the few traps that had been set or poisons laid down to combat them.
I could neither stop her nor change the course of her conversation. She didn’t reply when I asked her for her address, or the place she proposed for a meeting with the local dignitaries, and her tone never changed. I recalled it while crossing the road, at work, in the quiet of the evening after the children had gone to sleep, watching a favourite film on TV, drinking a cup of tea at a friend’s house . . . suddenly, without any warning, she would appear to me so that I could almost hear her beside my ear. But . . . what was it that made me dial my sister’s number on the telephone, knowing that the house was empty, certain there would be no reply?
I could find no justification. The vagueness of the motive was even more disturbing than hearing her voice answering me from my sister’s telephone, and filling me with a strange fear. Had I dialled the wrong number?
Had there been some crossed line that had propelled me to her?
Slowly, I proceeded to dial the numbers, saying each of them aloud. My heart beat faster as her voice rang out in the same tone, resuming a conversation that had begun goodness knows when, and goodness knows when it will end.
“The picture is very clear with the political command.”
Clearer than she supposes.Translated by Paul Starkey
“Majhula” [“Mystery Woman”] is from the author’s collection of short stories, Mutribat al-Ghuroub, Marqaz al-Hodhara al-Arabiyya, Cairo, 1997