Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Clytemnestra

Posted: 09/04/2014 in Short Stories

He can’t stop laughing at her tears. She’s used to bleeding in front of him, salt and the red variety. She didn’t think she would ever get this close but she already knows it’s too late; her decision was taken months ago. He carries on laughing to no one but himself as she struggles to get off all fours. She had been carrying it round the house since she took it out of the kitchen and stuffed it in her Marks and Spencer’s robe that he bought her for her birthday with her money. She puts her right hand inside and feels the smooth black safety handle and it fits inside her palm calmly which she takes as a sign. He doesn’t notice because he’s reached for the Sky remote and is watching highlights of his beloved eleven.

He takes a quick look over to her the way you look to see if it’s a spider or piece of dirt on the carpet. He’s picking at some nuts in a bowl on the coffee table and he’s put his feet up; pleased with himself at very perfect opening of a nut. Her stomach is still contracted from the blows. She doesn’t want to take her hand out of her pocket, away from her hope of salvation, but she has to get herself up. On her feet but still curled over the way old people’s spines start to bend, she understands that tomorrow may come but it’s not worth the wait. She walks slowly towards his back as he resides in his favourite chair.

“I’m sorry my love, let me make it up to you” she says with genuine affection. It is real. This will be love. Love and hate are woven together from the same thread. He snorts a reply and only turns his head slightly in her direction as she comes behind him. He’s smiling because he gets to have it all.

“Good thinking you silly cow, I hate it when you sulk”.

She nods in agreement which he can’t see but he wasn’t waiting for her confirmation. All the world’s a stage and….she liked Shakespeare as a young girl. Macbeth. Lady Macbeth.

She’s rubbing his shoulders; forefingers and thumbs moving up and down and up and down and up.

He settles into her movements and lets out a deep breath of relaxation. “That’s it honey, always been good with your hands” and he chuckles at his own wit.
She’s wondering if she can get another batch of washing done before she sleeps tonight as she rubs his temples and forehead. That always eases him. That’s it. Relax.
The sound of football commentary seems faint even though no one has touched the remote. She can’t see his face but knows his eyes are closed but he’s not asleep yet.
She reaches for it in her pocket. “My love” she says.

He grunts “uhuh?” without moving.

“I love you”, and takes the blade across his throat in one slow motion. The first tear of his skin cut his vocal chords and his screams are hoarse and drowned. His Adam’s apple provides a bit of resistance but not enough. She’s not surprised at how much blood is pouring out on her hands but at the scratching sound the blade makes on the thin skin across his neck. She likes it and laments she could not make its song last. The thickness of the blood reminds her of milk. She stops before she gets to his shoulder and takes her hand and blade back to her side and she doesn’t know if she should wash it now or leave it until the morning. Silly, I don’t have OCD, silly silly doctors, and shakes her head at the thought.

She goes around the chair and mounts him, her legs either side of the arm rests. She lifts his chin, his eyes open, and wants to tell him something important. But beyond his face she catches something that she cannot ignore. One of the light bulbs in the chandelier has gone out and the shops closed half an hour ago.

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This friend of mine

Posted: 23/03/2014 in Short Stories

This friend of mine. She called. We sit opposite each other in Bloomsbury at a locally run café. I smell the morning residue of fried eggs and bacon coming from inside. We’re sitting outside. The sun is out but there’s a slight breeze. It’s Saturday afternoon. London is busy. My seat is uncomfortable. I don’t say anything. Last time I saw her she had blonde highlights and she has stuck with them. She’s nervous. She always is around me. She likes to call me an asshole but it has a different meaning each time. The waitress, I read her nametag – Gemma – puts our coffees on the table without delicacy and mine spills over, a thick blotch of brown coffee on my white mug. I am angry at the injustice and my friend sees it and rolls her eyes as if to say “you never change”. I ignore her look and reach for my packet of Marlborough Lights in the inside of my leather jacket. I light a cigarette and take a deep first pull and she interrupts, “I thought you quit?” I shrug and take another deep pull, “They haven’t quit on me yet”.

We sit in silence. I don’t mind. She called. I wait. After taking a fake interest in her surroundings she focuses on me and without any drama says “I tried to kill myself last night”. I’m finishing my cigarette and put it out in the 99p ashtray on the table and I notice, to my further disgust at my stained coffee mug, that there’s no sugar on the table. She’s staring at me as she reads my thoughts. I signal to Gemma and she comes over to the table and I tell her my problem which she doesn’t seem to appreciate. I sigh in frustration that something so simple can be so frustrating. She comes back a moment later with four sachets of brown sugar and I want to cry because I only take white sugar and I’ll need a lot more than four sachets to get through the coffee. I decide Gemma is a horrible human being but I know when I am outgunned. I start ripping the top of each sachet and pour their contents into the mug.

“Did you hear what I said?” she asks, clearly annoyed at me. I give her a confused look and she takes this as a sign that I am taking an interest but my confusion lies with not seeing a spoon on the table to stir my sugar in. I sigh because I can’t bring myself to call Gemma over again and I’ll probably not touch the coffee now.

I light another cigarette and I start to feel better because I have made a definitive decision not to drink the coffee and the sun is on my skin. I think she’s about to raise her voice and I don’t want her to cause a scene so I say something.

“And how did it go?” I ask with the same intonation you would ask how someone’s job interview went.
She can’t decide if she’s happy I’ve said something or infuriated at what I’ve said.
She makes up her mind. “You’re an asshole”.

I take some pulls on my cigarette and shrug my shoulders.

She knows me well enough to know she has to add more into the conversation before I’ll contribute.
“I don’t know why. Nothing is wrong. But sometimes everything seems…hopeless.”

“You’re hopeless”, I want to say, but I don’t. She’s finding her voice now as she starts new sentences in the same breath as she finishes them.

“I tried. I really tried. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted it but I didn’t know why and that annoyed me. That’s why I called you. You’re an asshole, and the devil shouldn’t ask you for advice, but I called. Don’t make me regret it, asshole.”

She thinks she’s witty. Most people do. I would fake a smile to give her some confidence to carry on talking, but I don’t.

“I think my boyfriend is upset with me.”

As she says this I want to go back in time to earlier that day when she called and smash my face into the mirror I was staring at in my room when I picked up the phone. Twenty minutes ago I was in the British Museum reading on how the slaves of Pharaohs were murdered after their masters died so that they could serve them in the afterlife. Then I spot an opportunity in her sentence and for the first time since I saw her I am glad that I am there.

“I know he is” I say nonchalantly, and I lean back in the uncomfortable seat and take a deep pull of my cigarette and wait for her capitulation.

Her eyes screw. “What do you mean you know he is? You’ve never even met him!”

Her voice rises at the end but she manages to grip herself before she gets angry. I’m amused at her fragility but my face displays no emotion except when I look at the packet of Marlborough’s as I muse on whether I should have another cigarette.

I look at her confidently and remind her that “Yes, but I do know his name”.

She’s unsettled now. She knows I speak in Chess moves. She knows something’s coming.
“Cut the crap, what are you on about?”

She says this as cooley as she can muster but she’s biting her bottom lip which unravels her tension. She wishes she had never called but now she needs to know what I’m talking about. Check.
I act as if I’m trying to find my words but I am actually trying to decide whether if I leave in the next ten minutes I can catch the last exhibition of Darwin’s journals at the Natural History Museum. She’s visibly touched at how I am taking my time to choose my words while I try to look at my wrist watch in my periphery vision. I could make it if I leave in the next eight minutes.

I better get a move on.

“I noticed his absence on your Facebook.”

Her eyebrows rise.

I carry on.

“He used to comment and like every one of yours posts and pictures. He hasn’t in a while. How’s your ex?” I say this without any interest.

Her mouth screws and her face crunches. Her body is emanating more heat now and she’s probably digging her finger nails into her thighs because she’s removed them from the table. I reach for another cigarette as I put one out.

“What are you talking about asshole? Why would you ask me that?”

I smile. Not because I want to comfort her but because I am genuinely amused as her pathetic attempts at control.

Should I? Yes, she called.

“Your boyfriend’s absence has coincided with your ex having the confidence to like every single thing you post now.”

I wink at her to give her a chance to gather herself and let her think that I don’t believe what I am saying. That I am just screwing with her. She would believe that. I’m the asshole. She thinks I’m messing with her, that I’m teasing. But her paleness reveals that her nerves have been struck, and her inbox is written on her face as I read it.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about you asshole” she says, but after a moment adds “Are you serious?” because she’s seen a window to talk. That’s why she called. She wants it. I can be told things but no one will believe me if I revealed all. The asshole.

“Should I delete him then?” she asks softly, not waiting for my response, her head bowed in a way that is meant to make me feel sympathy for her but she garners more of my contempt.

I stand up because I need to go before I start eating my cigarettes and I can still make the exhibition if I leave now.

She knows not to tell me not to leave.

“Delete one of them. And next time, take the pills on an empty stomach. I have to go.”

She reaches for my hand and I look at hers touching mine. I just stare at it as she squeezes it and waits for me to return the favour. That doesn’t happen and she’s embarrassed and lets go.

She looks at me with a glare that is meant to be meaningful and deep but all I can see is a lipstick stain on her front tooth. I turn and walk away and head to the tube station. I don’t remember if I left money for the coffee.

“Read” he demands of her. “Read it again.”

She has not looked at him for some time.

Unfolding the book again, she need not ask what passage he demands.

With a quivering bottom lip, she begins.

“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die. She saith unto…” “Enough!” he interjected.

“And where is your Jesus that you so believe in, harlot?” he asked with such contempt and cruelty – for her or for the scripture, she was not sure.

“I…” she begins quivering. “You what?” he intercedes, “you what exactly? In this slum of this room that we sit. Where you are not a human, a soul, a spirit, but a thing, the spit of this world, hidden away by the world because it rejects you, and your room with no candle so you do not have to face your face.” His voice never raising above a whisper.

He had come three consecutive nights. Not for her pleasure, but for her torment. Other men paid for their amusement, and this was his.

“I know your secret” she spoke with a quivering bottom lip, “what…..you do. You are no better.”
She braced herself for a blow. She wanted it. Preferred the bruises that heal than the scars he was leaving.

He roars with laughter, gets up from the wooden chair, kneels in front of her, grabbing her by the neck so that she cannot turn away, their noses touching and his eyes trying to creep inside hers.

Whispering, “we are nothing alike, harlot.” She could smell his curse, his sweat, anger, contempt. “I take life. The debase of humanity, the not worth living. The not missed animals who walk the earth. I am unsure why I allow you to live, but decisions can be made. Now tell me harlot, where is your Lord as you sleep in this room? Where is your Jesus when your legs are spread?”

She begins to sob. Not from the pain of his strong grip on her neck, not because she was frightened of his threat, but because she knew he would not carry it out. This meant more to him than her murder. Because he knew her real secret.

“Don’t sob harlot” he says almost compassionately, getting up and sitting back on the chair. “Read.”
“I don’t want to read it!” She screamed, throwing the book at him, falling her to knees, pulling on her hair and bagging her fist on the dusty floor.

A banging from the neighbors below. He begins laughing again. “You hear that harlot? No one cares. They would prefer your death than your life.”

She looks up, still on the floor. Her hair matted with sweat, her eyes bloodshot, and in her state, momentary strength.

“I will tell the world you are a murderer. A Murderer!”

He smiles at her. Pleased she is fighting back.

“Read”, picking up the book from the floor next to him. He puts it in front of her. “Read” he repeats.
Her strength leaves her. Picking up the book, knowing the page number by heart.

Coughing but not wiping her tear stained cheeks. Her voice scratched.

“And I knew that Thou hearest Me always; but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that Thou has sent Me. And when He thus had spoken, He cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth.”

“And he that was dead came forth”, he repeated after her. “Any why do you stay dead when you believe in He? Lazarus was revived, and yet you remain in your own filth. Say it.”

A minute passes.

“Say it” he repeats.

She resisted yesterday. And the day before it. But there would not be a tomorrow. And she welcomes that thought.

“Say it”, he says again.

Looking up, the fight over, her true secret revealed.

“I do not believe anymore.”

He smiles, realizing there is more than one way to end a life. Gets up and leaves, knowing there will be no need to visit tomorrow.

The Bedroom

Posted: 03/04/2012 in Short Stories

He was sleeping next to his girlfriend on a Tuesday night in his large bedroom in the garden that was detached from the main house. His dad had it built for him so that his friends could come over at all hours of the night without disturbing his father, who in the main house, liked to gamble and smoke cheap hashish with his own friends that they bought from one of London’s many red- light districts. What he hadn’t counted on was his son stealing a couple of ounces from his father’s sock draw and taking it back to his bedroom where he and his friends tried and coughed it out for themselves.

On one occasion one of his friends had met a girl and needed a place to take their relationship to the “next level”. His friend still lived with his parents and he didn’t have enough money for a hotel so he gave his friend the keys to the front gate and the key to his room and told him to have a good time and to take the sheets home with him as a souvenir. His friend did exactly that.

The bedroom, fitted with its own bathroom and shower, as well as it is own front key and entry gate from the garden, meant he had total privacy from the outside world, and perhaps more importantly, his family. They never knew who was coming and going, and if it wasn’t for his bright red Honda Civic parked in the driveway, they wouldn’t be sure if he was home either.

But he wasn’t a young teenager anymore. He hadn’t even used the room that much over the last few years because he left London to go to university and experience true independence. He was the only one of his friends who made the move and they missed him almost as much as they missed coming over to his bedroom and being able to smoke cigarettes away from the watchful eyes of parents.

After three years he was back and he was welcomed home with open arms by his dad, his friends, and his trusty bedroom. This time however, he wasn’t alone. He brought with him a newcomer, his girlfriend, an international student from Brussels who he had met at university.

His friends weren’t surprised when he told them. He was always one step ahead of them and having a serious relationship while most of them still went to nightclubs for the thrill of getting a goodnight kiss or perhaps even more from one of the many attractive and available women in London was just another example of his faster progression than his peers.

Their relationship took a more serious turn without either of them really noticing it. One evening after lectures they met at the Student Union Cafe and over a bowl of chips and flat Coke, they started talking about life after university.

“I was on the Careers Website this afternoon. Brussels doesn’t have that much going on compared to London.” She said to him as she dipped a long chip into some ketchup.

“Well you loved London when we went in Easter. Why don’t you start applying and see what happens?” He replied encouragingly.

Up to that point they had never discussed what would happen come June when university was over and it was time for the real world to begin. But from his simple sentence she was able to read between the lines. He wanted her around and didn’t want their relationship to have a university expiry date and she felt exactly the same. They didn’t use words like “love” or “commitment” with each other. It was there and that’s all that mattered.

He only had two weeks to settle before he started his traineeship as a corporate lawyer, a job that thousands of law graduates fought over every year and he came out smiling with a sizeable employment contract with one of London’s top firms. There was only one catch: the firm came first. Long and strenuous fourteen hour days that stamped black circles under his eyes were to be expected from the second day on the job and sickness was now something other people got, not lawyers who charged by the hour and charged astronomical numbers.

He never forgot his first day when he was at the water dispenser and the director of the firm, an old blue blood corporate shark who was probably only fifty but looked eighty, said to him, “Think about how much water you drink, chappy. The more you drink, the more time you spend in the bathroom, and we’re not paying you to pee.” The director may have been smiling but he couldn’t help but feel that there was an element of seriousness in his tone.

He could console himself with the reminder that he was being paid exceptionally well, almost twice as much as his friends, even if he almost never had the time or energy to spend it. His girlfriend initially thought he was having an affair with another woman but the tired black rings under his eyes did not lie. He had lost weight in his face and had stopped exercising regularly, something he did religiously during his three years at university. There simply wasn’t the time to go for a jog around his streets or go to his local gym and maintain his muscle mass. He told himself that it was all worth it though when at the end of the month he stood in front of the black ATM screen and saw that his hard work had paid off, literally.

They slept peacefully next to each other. His girlfriend had just started working at an events management firm in the city and was still getting used to long working days, a far cry from the relaxed days of university where missing a morning lecture was the norm with almost no repercussions.

He had fallen asleep instantly. Getting home and eating dinner was all he could muster during the week and he was grateful that she was now feeling some of the stress and responsibility he had been experiencing for almost six months.

His phone rang. He was having a dream where he was back at school having a shouting match with his maths teacher about his latest exam failure. He was just about to leap over his desk with fury and grab him by his tie when the fire alarm went off but instead of the incessant “Riiiiing, Riiiiiiiiiing”, his techno ringtone took its place. For a moment he was stuck between his dream and reality, unaware that the two had momentarily merged. The music got louder as his girlfriend started to shift from her comfortable fetus position and his eyes were now open, trying to identify the sound and put an end to its life. He had to lean over her back and shoulders to reach his slim Blackberry that was a gift from his employers. They called it a gift. He called it a ball and chain. Email and a telephone connection to his office twenty four hours a day, every day, until he became an associate of the firm, or until he had a heart attack, whichever came first. If he was a gambling man, he would have put his money on the heart attack.

He held it in his hands and read the word “mama” that was blinking on the screen. His brain oozed confusion and his heart jumped with panic. His girlfriend had turned over to face him and he managed to put his finger across his lips to indicate that she was not to make a sound as he pressed the green button to answer the call.

“Mum, it’s 2.00am.” He said with a croaky throat.

“Habibi, are you home? I couldn’t see the car. It’s your sister; quickly, we need to get to the hospital.” His mother always called him habibi, her darling, even when she was panicking.

“What? Is she ok?” He asked sharply, his croaky throat being replaced by a sense of anxiety and all traces of sleep exited his body instantly.

There was a moments silence and he couldn’t bear it. “Mum, answer me!” He shouted down the phone desperately.

“She’s drooling and shaking. It’s happening again.”

He could hear the strain in his mother’s voice. It didn’t matter that his sister had cancer for the past two years or that late night trips to the hospital had happened multiple times. It didn’t make it any easier and the lingering feeling that this could be the “last time” was ever present on the periphery for both mother and son.

“Mum, I’ll be outside with the car in five minutes; do you need me to carry her?” He was trying to get practical and get a grip over his own panic and worry.

“No, I can manage. I’m just getting her dressed and an overnight bag ready.” His mother was feeding off her son’s practical sensibilities.

“I’ll see you outside then.” He was about to hang up but he heard his mother take a deep breath as if she were about to say something very important.

“Habibi, one last thing: Bring your friend with you.” Her voice was composed and clear.

A gut-wrenching feeling took over his body. He heard her call him “habibi” and then she said something else but his brain refused to believe it. It wasn’t possible. No one knew about her, no one had seen her. All these thoughts raced around his brain without warning or with his control.

He had to react quickly. Just as a child when he was shouted at for repeating a swear word he heard on T.V, or for walking into the carpeted house with his muddy shoes on, he feigned ignorance and innocence before he would ever own up to his guilt.

“My friend, Mama? I don’t let the guys come over during the week, you know that. He said in the most composed manner he could muster before adding, “Listen, I’ll be outside with the car in five minutes.”

That sounded good. She would drop it now, she was probably just confused because she was panicking over my sister, he thought to himself reassuringly.

“I don’t mean the boys. I’m talking about the red head. Bring her along. I could use some female company. See you in five minutes.” Her tone was direct and affirmative and she hung up without waiting for a reply.

His heart fell to his feet. “How could she know?” He asked himself that question twenty times under his breath in the seconds after his mother hung up and he suddenly felt complete dread enveloping his entire body and he didn’t dare move a muscle. He was in complete shock.

His girlfriend had been lying down with her back to him during the conversation, in that warm place between being awake and drifting off to sleep and letting dreams emerge instead of conscious thought. She turned over to get more comfortable and she opened her eyes slightly to see if he was back asleep. Instead she saw him sitting with his back against the wall and although the room was dark, she could clearly see that he was in shock.

The first thing that came to her mind was his sister and she feared the worst. She knew her boyfriend loved his sister dearly, even if he didn’t always say it or like to talk about her illness.

She perched up onto her elbows and crossed her legs. She leaned closer to him and put her hand on his face and she noticed that his cheeks were very cold even though the room was toasty warm from the small electric heater in the corner of the room. He looked at her and then away to nothing in particular until she finally broke the silence.

“Has something happened, habibi?”

There was that word again. Habibi. My darling. He had taught her a little Arabic and she soon started using it rather than his name.

He took a deep breath and locked his eyes onto hers and he finally accepted that feigning ignorance like he did as a child would not work this time. Not tonight. His mother wasn’t asking him, she had given him a straight order and it didn’t matter that he was the city slicker lawyer who had expensive suave lunches with blue-chip clients.

She was about to ask him the question again but he interceded.

“Yes”, he managed to say faintly before adding, “We’re going to the hospital. It looks like we weren’t as secretive as we thought. She wants to meet you.”

********

They didn’t have much time. He was already out of bed, washing his face and looking for his tracksuit bottoms and a jumper with a hood. He took a quick look outside the window and saw that London was still pitch black but was already pouring with rain with a bitter cold wind that notoriously cut through skin and etched itself deep inside bones.

His girlfriend was sitting upright on the bed with a look of bewilderment.

“How can I meet them now? Like this? Your sister, she’s, she’s…” She stuttered trying to find the right words. “For God’s sake, she’s really sick, this isn’t the time to be meeting the family.”

He didn’t like the idea anymore than she did but his mother did not pull her punches and right now his sister needed to be taken to the hospital. He thought about just getting in the car and leaving her behind, trying to again convince his mum that he was alone in the room but he knew better than that. She was a mother who often allowed herself to be lied to by her children, but tonight was not one of those times.

“Listen”, he said as he walked over to the bed, kneeled down next to her and put his hand on her leg. “Sweetheart, I wasn’t expecting this, you know that, but right now I need to take my sister to hospital and my mum’s adamant that you come. I don’t know how she found out or why she wants to see you tonight but that’s just something we’ll have to figure out together.” He lent in and gave her a soft kiss on the lips and for a moment their eyes locked on one another. She was putting on a brave face and he did his best to look like he had the situation under control. He leant in once more, this time kissing her on the forehead before getting up and heading towards the door. He turned around and saw that she hadn’t moved from the bed.

“See you outside, sweety” he said, before closing the door behind him and inhaling the chilly musty air of London before dawn.

He opened the garden gate and stood in the driveway staring at his Honda. As he got into the driver’s seat and closed the door behind him, he took a deep breath and recited the travel du’aa (prayer), that his mother taught him as a child, before reversing the car down the driveway and stopping outside the front door to the house.

He didn’t have to wait long. As soon as she saw her son’s headlights she opened the front door and headed back into the house. He only got a glimpse of her back but it was enough for his heart rate to quicken.

The rain poured incessantly as he stepped out of the car and mustered up the courage to approach the open front door but he didn’t get a chance to walk very far.

Through the doorway he saw his mother, her arm around her daughter, supporting her small fragile steps. He wasn’t even a teenager when his older brother died but he still remembered what his paternal uncle said to him after the funeral. “No parent should ever have to bury their child.” Those words came to him now at the sight of his stricken sister and it took all his will power to control his emotions.

In the darkness of night he saw his mother’s face that projected both pain and defiance. She looked at him and for the first time in his life he realized that his mother was old. Her once smooth, olive skin was now a pale yellow, and her face had lost all its depth and was instead gaunt and hollow. Her veil hung loosely behind her fringe and the top of her head could clearly be seen. It was obvious she put it on in a rush. The only thing that remained unchanged was her strong Roman nose that dominated the other features on her face and with it she was able to portray a woman who still had plenty of fight left in her.

They locked eyes for a moment before his attention switched to his sister who was in her mother’s shadow, holding onto her supporting shoulder. She was wearing a huge navy blue raincoat that hung like a blanket over her tiny body and her eyes were half closed. Her head dangled downwards from her neck and her legs were unsteady and shaking.

“Normal”, the doctors said. “Normal” that she would lose all sense of her environment, normal that her hair would start to fall off in lumps, and normal that she would weigh the same as she did when she was fourteen despite the fact she was now in her mid twenties. His beautiful sister was now just a shell of herself and not for the first time since the ordeal began, he held back the urge to mix his tears with the rain drops already on his cheeks.

He pushed past his mother in the door way avoiding eye contact, and in one quick motion picked his sister up from her ankles and her head. She didn’t even seem to notice that she was now cradled in her younger brother’s arms and her eyes were shut. His mother opened the car door and he did his best to shelter his sister from the rain as he gently placed her onto the backseat. He took a final look at her and saw that her eyes were still shut but drool and saliva hung from the side of her bottom lip.

His mother settled in next to her. He slowly walked around the car towards the driver’s seat and his brain switched away from his sister and back to his completely unexpected predicament. He was reaching for his phone in his tracksuit bottoms when he heard a loud banging of a door from the garden and the turning of keys: his girlfriend was locking the bedroom.

He saw her silhouette walking down the puddled driveway and he couldn’t help but admire the curvaceous shape of her body and how beautiful she looked after only two hours sleep and five minutes to get dressed.

She reached where he was standing and she smiled with complete confidence. He knew that his face revealed how nervous he was, but she had always been better than him at putting up a façade to shield her real emotions when the situation called for composure. Inside, he knew she was just as nervous as he was. But it was too late to back out now. She walked straight passed him, opened the passenger door and got in.

********

He got into the driver’s seat with his girlfriend next to him before twisting his body and neck towards the backseat and said, “Mama, this is my friend who you wanted to meet.” He knew he sounded ridiculous but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Lovely to finally meet you, my dear”, his mother replied with a friendly smile on her face directed to his girlfriend. His heart skipped a beat: “finally” his mother had said. “She’s known about us for a long time! How could she? When did she find out and why didn’t she say anything before tonight?” All these questions raced around his brain and he felt his body tense up and he knew his face was red with embarrassment.

He didn’t hear the polite reply his girlfriend gave back to his mother because he was lost in thought.

His mother brought him back. “Drive, habibi.” She lingered on the last word but it didn’t provide any comfort to his tense state.

For ten minutes there was utter silence as he shifted through the gears of his car through London’s misty fog. He knew the way to the hospital well and he didn’t have to concentrate too hard with no other cars on the road but his heart was racing. His sister was shaking in the back but she looked reasonably stable as her mother patted her on the head and stroked the last remaining hairs on her head while whispering Quran in her right ear. The young couple didn’t even exchange a glance with one another. Twenty minutes earlier they were in bed together, but now they were young adolescents afraid of the punishment of an adult. He was a lawyer, she an events manager, but both felt like they were back at school with the gaze of an angry teacher upon them.

They arrived at the hospital and he pulled up next to the front door to his sister’s regular ward and his mother and sister got out. He was about to drive away and look for a parking spot when his mother knocked on the wet window.

“Come with us my dear, he can park the car himself.” She said tenderly but her victim’s cheeks flushed with both embarrassment and fear and she knew an order when she heard one. She quickly glanced at her boyfriend as if to say “Here we go” before getting out of the car and obeyed her boyfriend’s mother who she had only just met.

He pulled away from the front entrance into the hospital car park. He knew he was losing his grip on the situation and there was nothing he could do. This wasn’t a legal case. He couldn’t bend, delay or twist the truth. His mother knew what was going on and she had every intention of confronting it head on.

Five minutes later he was standing at the reception desk asking where his sister had been taken and he was directed down a very bright hall that made his eyes squint, through double doors on the right and into another waiting area. He looked around for his mother or girlfriend but he couldn’t find anyone except another small reception desk with an elderly plump woman manning it.

He walked across and gave her his sister’s name.

“Yes, she’s with the doctor now. He’s giving her an injection to stabilize her nervous system. He should only be about fifteen minutes. Your mother asked for you to wait here. She said she will be back soon. She had another girl with her.”

Not for the first time that hour his face beheld a complete look of astonishment. His mother, who usually never let her sick daughter out of her sight, had left her alone in her time of need in order to speak to his girlfriend. Worst of all, he had no idea what was being said.

He sat down on one of the waiting chairs and he didn’t know if he should feel angry at his mother for this whole sequence of events or guilty that he had taken the attention away from his poor sister. There was also the pang of guilt towards his girlfriend. She had work in the morning and she had never signed up for an angry mother and a sick sister when she got into a relationship with him. Particularly a mother who at this very moment could be shattering his relationship with her.

He resigned himself to the fact that there was nothing he could do now. He had no idea what they were talking about and he quietly recited the Fatha, the first prayer in the Quran, for his sister’s health.

His mother could just as easily be talking to her about the weather as she could be telling her to convert to Islam, he mused. “Good luck, mama” he thought to himself, “The girl is an atheist and she won’t be interested in tales of religious salvation at 3.00am.” For the first time that night he thought things would be ok. He would buy her something nice to apologize if his mother embarrassed him, he promised himself. Maybe one of those nice Swarovski necklaces he saw her ogling last weekend on Bond Street. As for his mother, she would just have to accept that he wasn’t a child anymore and he had a right to make his own decisions about morality or religion.

Almost twenty minutes passed and his sister was still inside with the doctor. He was starting to get very impatient at being left alone in the lifeless waiting room and the incessant ringing of the telephone on the front desk which was left unmanned after the nurse went to do her rounds.

He was about to get up and knock on the door where his sister was being treated when the double doors to the reception area opened wide and his mother entered hand in hand with his girlfriend. They were both smiling and for a moment he thought he really needed a holiday because his eyes were playing tricks on him.

But they weren’t. Their hands really were intertwined and they were both smiling. His girlfriend even seemed like she was giggling. His mother’s face appeared softer and more relaxed than when he saw her just minutes ago. She didn’t look like a mother with a daughter sick with cancer in the next room.

They approached him and he heard his mother say to her, “She’s in room four. We’ll be there in a minute.”

He watched his girlfriend walk past him and she avoided making eye contact. He focused on her face for any clues but she hid away any emotion. “Her façade, again” he said to himself. She knocked on the door to the room where his sister was being treated before entering inside and out of his sight.

He turned back to his mother. He looked like a desperate man now, completely bemused and he needed to know what had happened in the last twenty minutes. His mother had taken the seat he was using and he sat down next to her. Her eyes were closed as if she was in deep prayer and he was too terrified to disturb her. Silence ensued.

Her face was still soft but he now noticed the deep lines of fatigue etched across her face and skin.

He waited patiently. He knew she would eventually speak and he was determined not to appear weak or unsettled by the events.

A trace of a smile appeared on her face and she nodded her head slowly as if agreeing to something before whispering, “I like her.” The smile then disappeared before she continued, “It’s you I’m angry at.”

He waited a moment before meekly replying, “Because I never told you?”

“No” she replied in a sharp tone, her eyes now open and twisting her body on the chair so that she was now facing her son, “Because you disrespected that girl by keeping her a secret. By making her sneak inside your room and denying her existence to your own mother and family. If you’re man enough to be with her and for her to sleep in your bed, in your home, then be man enough to claim her in front of the world. Secrets are only for what we are ashamed of. Are you ashamed, habibi?”

His eyes widened with astonishment. He was completely taken back and his brain wriggled with emotions of anger and defence. “No” he replied instinctively.

She went after him ferociously, “Then don’t let me ever catch you making a woman a secret again. God blessed you with sisters and I raised you better than this. A woman is the crowning jewel of any man and if he isn’t proud of her light then he doesn’t deserve her pleasures in the dark.”

She stared dead into his eyes, nodded to herself as if she was satisfied with something known only to her, and without warning, got up and walked to room four. She was about to enter but she turned back, looking at her son and said something she didn’t think he would hear. But he did.

“Your father. That room he built for you. To hold secrets. To hide his own affairs and you picked up his dirty habit.”

She walked inside and was out of sight.

He sat still and he never felt so alone in his life. Her words hung in the air and he felt shame encompass his entire being.

He thought about her words. “A woman is the crowning jewel of any man…..”

“A jewel” he said under his breath. He closed his eyes and fought back as much as he could but to no avail. The salty taste of his tears reached his lips and mouth, and for the first time in what felt like a life time, his body slowly eased off the tension.

He didn’t have a clue what he was going to do. His pride didn’t let him back down from Dr. Hampton’s challenge and now he had no choice: In just under twenty four hours, Dr. Hampton and the class would be waiting for him to lecture the class on medieval literature and it had better be good. Hampton was of course doing this to teach him a lesson in respect and manners, and the class were eager to see the recluse kid with baggy, unfashionable clothes and a rebellious attitude embarrass himself completely.

He imagined how the class would go. The class would grin or smirk every time he stuttered or paused if he was confused or nervous and Dr. Hampton would probably act all pious and patient, sitting quietly observing and taking notes, and then when Adam was in trouble he would stand up and say, “Ok, Adam, that’s enough. Good effort and you see? Teaching is not as easy as it looks” and just like that, he would have lost and Adam hated to lose.

The lecture finished and he walked out of the classroom and into the huge courtyard where all the students gathered for breaks and lunch. It was just before noon and the Cairo sun blazed high above. Most students at the university were on a break for lunch before the next set of lectures at 1.00pm and Adam’s eyes gazed across the landscape of his fellow students.

To his right he saw the grunge wannabe rock artists with the guys wearing their hair long and loose, baggy jeans with holes on their knees and a cigarette in their mouths, while the girls had the macabre look going, with dark lipstick and pale white faces that made their appearance unsettling on the eye. This group was usually either completely silent as they puffed on cigarettes or were too cool to make small talk, or they were shouting and arguing with each other about whether, once they started their band (they never seemed to get round to it), which artistic sound they would follow. Adam heard them shout at names like Korn and System of a Down but it was all lost on him.

Beyond the wannabe rock artists he could see what he called The Super Kids. They were a group of half a dozen academic geniuses that were all on scholarships for their ability in maths, science and engineering. They dressed the part, too. As if they were already lab rats or university professors, the guys wore elbow patched jumpers and jackets (never wearing a t-shirt no matter how hot it was), and the girls wore thick glasses, no makeup of any kind, and from what Adam could remember from having a conversation with one of them in the library in his first year of university, they also had terrible breathe.

The Super Kids were in all likelihood bullied at high school and so they found solace and comfort in keeping to themselves for the most part. They were, of course, very arrogant and snide and had a sense of humour that was far too intellectual and thought out to actually be funny to anyone but them. They would drool as they giggled and sniggered at their cleverness while the recipient of the joke would stare blank faced wondering why a young adult couldn’t keep their saliva in their mouths.

To his left, Adam spotted The Perfect Girls. The type of girls that American film directors and TV producers love to have on screen with their perfect, straight white teeth, immaculately coloured nails, straight or curly hair that was in perfect place, and outfits that were stitched onto their bodies that morning, revealing every perfect curve they possessed. However, unlike the TV shows and movies, these were Egyptian girls but who nevertheless looked the part. Instead of blonde hair they had rich dark hair, and instead of white, blemishless faces, they had olive or tanned skin that was equally as attractive.

These girls weren’t stupid or “bimbos”. That’s why they were called The Perfect Girls. They seemed to have everything going for them. They all went to either French or English schools in Cairo so they spoke at least two languages perfectly. They came from rich families and spent most summers in Europe or the U.S. They had fine clothes, got good grades at school and university, and had those to die for smiles that made men dream of their marriage to one of them at the sight of those pearly whites.

But every diamond has a flaw no matter how perfect and these girls were no different. Their flaw was simple: they were boring. Beyond the perfect exterior, they were simple girls who wanted stable boyfriends who could also one day be “marriage material”. They were straight up girls who never entertained the idea of losing their virginity before marriage and they always wanted to be spoilt just as they were by their parents. A date would always be at a nice restaurant where she would get the chance to dress up a little and you would always have to pick her up and drop her home even though she had her own car. In return you got the “perfect” girlfriend but who never let loose and never went wild. It was marriage without the sex.

That’s not to say that they were single girls. In fact, all of them had a boyfriend whether they were temporarily “broken up” or preparing to meet each other’s parents in order to get engaged. They managed to find their male equivalents that were polite “gentlemen” and came from the same affable families that they did, and were happy to enter into marriage and a stable life straight after university finished.

Adam called those guys The Suckers. He wasn’t against marriage in any shape or form. He didn’t know enough about it to have an opinion. But he did know one thing: It was too soon to be thinking about marriage at the age of nineteen or twenty, especially when he considered being a young adult the prime time to experiment and get the most out of life before it was time to settle down.

Then there were The Tight T-Shirts. These were by far the largest group at university and they always occupied the same spot just outside the cafeteria where they pushed at each other’s chests and laughed and groaned like their ape ancestors ten million years ago. Almost all of them carried a university gym membership in their back pocket and were always wearing the smallest t-shirt they could find in a shop while still justifying it was a t-shirt despite the sleeves only reaching past their shoulders. They either had a shaved head or greasy, gelled black hair and they always walked with their shoulders back, chest out, and their large arms swinging side to side in order to look as imposing as possible. There was one last pre-requisite to be part of the group: You had to have a nickname like Zico, Deedo or Hemo. It was almost always some sort of two syllable combination.

As they play wrestled and made crude jokes at each other, The Open Girls were almost always lurking around in the periphery. They were called The Open Girls for two reasons: They were always on the lookout for a new boyfriend and they had already had their legs opened once before and were happy to have them opened once again. These girls also tended to come from good families but who had travelled a different path than The Perfect Girls. They wanted to have fun and be totally western, to smoke cigarettes, to have sex and do all the things they weren’t meant to do in Islamic Cairo. They usually dated one of the guys from The Tight T- Shirts for a few weeks before they would get sick of each other and move onto the next quick and easy relationship.

Adam looked on at all the groups and was amused that the university was like a little world unto itself. Islam, politics and society were left outside the university gates and inside the students had started their own social order.

He took a deep breath, looked at his silver Tissot watch, a gift from his dad for his eighteenth birthday, and realised that it was time for him to meet with Dr. Hubbard about his research paper for his Literature and Gender class. He had a busy day ahead of him and now that he had the added assignment of teaching a class tomorrow morning, he realised he would probably be spending the late hours of the night at the university library figuring out just exactly what he was going to do.

He pulled up to the university car park in his 1974 red Volkswagen Beetle and flashed his student ID card and parking permit at the security guard. He circled around the car park twice and was cursing the day he even bothered paying for the extortionate parking permit before he was able to find a spot.

Already late for his Medieval Literature class, he didn’t see the point in rushing and instead nonchalantly put his IPod earphones on and bounced along to his favourite Beetles album, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

“And so, Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’ follows the tradition of Greco-Roman epic poetry in that it is largely a nationalistic and patriotic poem that outlines the greatness of the people that now inherit it. Now what is most interesting is that Ferdowsi was not afraid to explain and in fact illuminate the history of Persia before it embraced Islam even though Ferdowsi himself was an ardent Muslim.”

Just as Dr. Hampton was concluding his thoughts on the great Persian epic poem, Adam walked into the seminar room. Before he could take three steps towards the back of the room, Hampton couldn’t resist exercising his authority and importance.

“Ah, Mr. Adam Husseiny, so nice of you to join us with there being only ten minutes left of this lecture.”

He turned around, cutting off his journey to the back of the room.

“My apologies, professor, you know how traffic is in Cairo.” He said both politely and with an unconcerned look on his face.

“Well that is indeed true. But what I find most fascinating is that you, and no one else in this classroom, are always late to this class. Tell me, where do you live?” His voice was sarcastic and full of pompous arrogance.

“Mirage City” Adam replied without hesitation.

“Mirage City? Really? If I’m not mistaken, and I rarely am, that is about twenty minutes away.”

Adam could see where this was going and was starting to get irritated.

The professor continued, “Perhaps you are always late and yet live so close is because you think this course is not interesting or too easy?”

Adam knew he was being goaded and decided to play it safe.

“No, of course not professor” he said sincerely which produced a smile of satisfaction from the professor.

The professor turned around back to his whiteboard and Adam couldn’t resist mumbling to himself.

“An easy course? More like piss easy course.”

The professor turned around in an instant.

“What did you say, young man?” He demanded angrily.

The rest of the class sprung awake from their slumbers and were excited to see the arrogant, loner boy get shouted and embarrassed by the professor.

Adam didn’t know why he was about to have this fight and there was still time to avoid it but he didn’t want to. He knew he could win and that seemed to be the most important thing to him.

“I said…” he hesitated, before continuing, “This course is piss easy.”

The professor’s jaw dropped and as he lifted it from the ground his white cheeks turned maroon red and a vein on his forehead started to protrude violently.

It looked like he was about to burst into a fit of anger but suddenly he took a deep breath and his cheeks started to return to their normal paleness.

“Mr. Adam, it is rare I am treated with such insolence, but since you have already committed this appalling act, do you care to explain yourself?”

He knew he couldn’t back down now so he just went for it.

“Thus far in the course there have been no variations away from safe and accepted theories on medieval literature. I think there has been too much emphasis on giving us what can be proved rather than what has yet to be proven or other possibilities about other texts. For example, I completely disagree with what I heard you saying about Ferdowsi as I walked in. In the true style of epic poetry, which I consider Homer and Virgil to be the fathers of, Ferdowsi had no choice in showing how great life was in Persia prior to Islam because the emphasis of epic poetry is national greatness. It doesn’t matter if Persians were once pagan worshippers so long as the country was still great and so long as Ferdowsi can show it was even greater after Islam came into the region, which, as you pointed out, he inevitably does because he himself was a Muslim, albeit a drinking and gambling one, so it’s probably more likely that he was just paid a lot of money by a hierarchy who were strict Muslims.”

The whole class was silent and the students, somewhat stunned, turned towards their professor awaiting his response.

The professor himself stood motionless without any expression on his face.

Adam didn’t know what else to do so he carried on walking to the back of the room and found himself a seat.

The professor took off his glasses, pulled out a piece of cloth and cleaned the lenses before returning them to his face.

He looked at Adam, looked away from him as if confirming something to himself before speaking.

“I see. Well class it appears that Mr. Adam knows a lot more about medieval literature than I do and so it is only fair that he teach me a little so that I can better serve you in the future. So Mr. Adam, tomorrow, in this class, you get to teach it. There are no restrictions on what you can teach us so long as it is on medieval literature and that you, as the teacher, come on time ready to teach me and the class. Personally, I am very much looking forward to it.”

He said the last part with great satisfaction and a hint of sarcasm and Adam didn’t bat an eyelid as the professor spoke and openly challenged him.

“Well Mr. Adam? Do you we have an agreement?”

The class turned their heads to Adam at the back of the room and he returned their gaze.

He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and finally replied with confidence, “Absolutely, professor, I already have something in mind.”

His dad was playing the old trick of pushing him as he pedalled away for the very first time and soon enough, as he turned around, his father was many meters behind cheering his son on and the little boy had realized that he was moving all on his own. He was cycling away around the park when he suddenly heard the loud screech of a police car siren tearing through a nearby narrow road, breaking hard when it saw the boy’s mother, but too little too late as her lifeless body covered the shattered windshield of the police car. The police siren was still on as the boy fell off his bicycle. He rolled over from his backside and had a look at his scraped knees and shins. He looked up to locate his father but he was nowhere to be seen. The police siren got louder and louder. Then came the ambulance. NEEENOOOOO NEEEENOOOOO. NEEENOOOO.

He sat up in a shot from his bed. His alarm was bellowing out the same insolent tone it did every morning at 7.00am, telling him that it was time for him to start his day and see what Cairo, and his university, had to offer him. But for once he wasn’t annoyed. He was relieved to be awoken from his nightmare and that the incessant ringing of the alarm was not in fact an ambulance on its way to revive his mother.

He hit the snooze button on his alarm and scootched up on his bed so that he was sitting up rather than lying down. He took a moment to let his mind wander and gather itself. He didn’t want to think about the nightmare. He took a quick look at the Quran next to his bedside table but decided against it. Instead he distracted himself by mentally going through his day ahead: make sure I have breakfast, get petrol, get to university, three lectures after another, go to the library and return books that I used for my research paper on Aristotle’s Poetics, see Dr. Hubbard about my research proposal for the Literature and Gender class, meet Maria for lunch at the Student’s Union and then head home. A routine day by all accounts.

He opened his bedroom door and could hear a ruckus downstairs. They were already up, like every day, having breakfast, he thought to himself. He walked the two meters along the carpeted corridor to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror: four days worth of facial hair, scruffy afro hair and bags under his eyes, all blame and thanks towards his somnia.

He knew of a few people who claimed they had insomnia but he never understood how anyone could have trouble sleeping. He could sleep at the drop of a hat in any circumstance or location. That wasn’t his problem. He had somnia: the problem where the person has far too much energy and eagerness to waste it on sleep. He tried explaining this to his parents who would beg him to get some sleep instead of incessantly typing away on his computer until sunrise, or to his friends who commented on his dark circles below his eyes, but none of them ever understood. Even his best friend, Ramy, had gone as far buying him sleeping tablets to try and regulate his sleeping when he found him once snoring behind the wheel of his car as he waited for the car engine to warm up before he set off, but it was to no avail. He would at times find himself exhausted and fall asleep at odd and sometimes dangerous times, but it would be the same problem over and over: as soon as he had some sleep, he would feel more refreshed than ever and would go back to his somniac ways for days and often weeks.

He finished washing up in the bathroom and headed back to his room. He smiled as he walked back in and looked up at his pictures and posters on the wall. He knew other people his age had posters of sex symbols, famous actors or their favourite sporting heroes, but he didn’t have anyone on his wall that his peers would recognise. A portrait of the Orientalist and Arab darling, Edward Said, hung above his bed. Fredric Nietzsche was next to his mirror and Nicholas Machiavelli was between his cupboard and bookshelves, staring around the room with arrogant swag. He knew he was different than most of his peers. Ramy was his best friend not because he shared the same philosophical or literary interests as he did, but rather because Ramy was able to look past his friend’s peculiar interests and have a friendship based on sports, jokes and their weekend shiesha’s.

Ten minutes later he had a pair of baggy, dark blue jeans on and a black t-shirt with a printed picture of Chez Guevara on it. He put a comb through his thick, bushy brown hair that to the naked eye did little to its appearance, but he always insisted on going through the process. Ramy also made fun of his OCD tendencies but Adam would quickly retort that every genius has a peculiarity about them: Alexander the Great used to speak with his head slightly tilted to the left and Einstein never used to wear socks.

He walked down the carpeted stairs and followed the sweet smell of freshly brewed coffee. He got to the kitchen and his mother’s back was turned to him as she was flipping over some fried eggs. His father was seated at the small breakfast table already wearing his business suit, reading the Ahram newspaper that covered his entire body.

“Sabah el kheer.” Good morning.

His father brought the newspaper down to his chest and smiled.

“Sabah el noor ya ibny.” Good morning to you too, my son.

“I was beginning to think that I was going to have to go upstairs and wake you up.” His mother said to him as she turned around from frying the eggs and gave her son a smile.

“I had trouble getting my contact lenses in. Didn’t bother in the end. I like my glasses anyway.” He replied nonchalantly to his mother as he opened the fridge door and pulled out a bottle of fresh milk.

He made his way to the kettle and grabbed himself a mug and the Nescafe bowl when his mother interjected.

“None of that brew until you get some food down your stomach first. I won’t have you not sleeping and not eating. It’s no wonder you can’t get your contact lenses in, you’re eyes are getting a permanent squint and are in desperate need of some sleep. Which reminds me, I was doing some reading online yesterday about ways to calm your heart rate and get you sleeping regularly.”

“Yeah, what do I have to do? Sit down in the lotus position and sing Kumbaya?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Adam. You can’t possibly tell me you don’t want to have some regular sleeping hours. What you’re doing is not healthy, son.”

He loved his mum. He really did. She still had her good looks and no doubt he had gotten all his social, political and artistic intellect from her.

“I can sleep when I want to but I just don’t want to. Michelangelo said sleeping was a waste of time. Who am I to argue with him? I get so much work done when everyone is sleeping away and look, I don’t get ill, do I?”

“Never mind Michelangelo!” His mother replied sarcastically before she continued, “You’ve lost a lot of weight and I’m beginning to worry about you. Hatem, please tell your son to take what I’m saying seriously!”

His father, who had returned the newspaper in front of his face after saying good morning to his son, was unaware of what his wife and son were talking about.

He tried his best to sound authoritative and convincing. “Listen to your mother, Adam. She knows what’s she talking about” before returning the newspaper inches to his nose.