“I’ll get the door,” Jahni said. “Give me your keys.”
“I’m quite capable of opening my own door,” Madari said, but with only a hint of irritation in his voice, overshadowed by weariness. His face told of that weariness too; gaunt and hollow eyed, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.
Madari stepped past Jahni to unlock the door and they walked into the dark flat. When Jahni turned on a light, Madari winced and raised a hand to shade his eyes, before he shed his uniform jacket. Jahni took that from him and hung it up, then hung his own beside it.
“Sit down,” Jahni said. “I’ll make some tea.”
“Thank you. I am thirsty.”
It had been a long drive back through the desert after the funeral, during which Madari had not spoken more than a few words. He kept his face turned away, but Jahni saw him lift a hand to his eyes several times. Leaving Madari in the living room, Jahni went into the kitchen and prepared tea for them both, being careful not to make it too strong. Madari needed his rest.
Youssef’s illness had come on suddenly – a stroke – but his death came slowly almost a month later. A week in the hospital and then back at the home he shared with his sister, when the doctors gave little hope of his even regaining consciousness. He never did. Never moved voluntarily, never spoke. Just slowly faded away.
Madari spent many of his off duty hours at Youssef’s bedside, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. Jahni joined him in his vigil when he could. Did Madari hope for a last word from his old friend and faithful servant? If so, he never received it.
At the end, Youssef took his last breath with only his sister and her family at his side. Madari gave them the privacy when it was clear the end was close. He and Jahni sat in the living room, quiet and waiting. After a while, Rahama joined them. When they heard the sound of the women wailing Madari simply closed his eyes. With Rahama there Jahni didn’t dare to do any more than take his hand to comfort him.
Rahama saw to it that Youssef received a funeral befitting a soldier of the Royal Guard. As Ahmed would have wanted, he’d said as they walked from the grave, choking on dust blown up from the parched ground by hot wind.
The tea was ready. Jahni took it into the living room to find Madari had turned off the overhead light and lit only a small table lamp. Outside it was almost fully dark now, nearly nine in the evening. He sat in an armchair and Jahni wished he’d sat on a sofa. Then Jahni could have gone to him – held him. Instead he sat alone. Unapproachable.
“We should have funerals at night,” Madari said. Jahni looked up from pouring the tea. “The sun shouldn’t be so bright at a funeral. It’s not right.”
“Yes. At night, like the Vikings.”
“Those were cremations.” He sighed. “Sharif is the only one left now of the people who knew me when I was a child. When he is gone and I am gone it will be as if that time never existed.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Jahni said quickly. “Not for a long time. Neither is Colonel Rahama. He could live until he’s ninety.”
“And he could have a stroke or heart attack tomorrow.”
“And I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” Jahni said and regretted the words at once, seeing the look of horror flicker across Madari’s face. “I just mean, we can’t change what will happen tomorrow, so why dwell on it?”
“Fate, Kahil? I thought you stopped believing in fate.”
“I don’t mean it’s all planned. Just that we can’t see what will happen, so we can’t plan ways to change it.”
“You’re right.” He put down his tea cup and Jahni refilled it at once. “Thank you.” After he drank that cup he sat back in his seat and sighed again, but more a sigh of tiredness than of despair. His face relaxed, some of the pain leaving it. “Thank you, Kahil. For the tea. For being with me today and the last few weeks.”
“You know I’ll never leave your side while you need me.”
Madari smiled. The first smile Jahni had seen on his face in days. “I know. I know.”
He wished he could make that smile happen more often. He’d been smiling every time Jahni said the word ‘yes’ to him lately, knowing what that ‘yes’ meant. Though he insisted on keeping up the pretence that Jahni might still change his mind about Paris. Yet he must know that Jahni was more likely to leave the Army and become a ballet dancer than start saying no about this. But if that’s how he wanted to play it, he was welcome to, Jahni thought. He didn’t care. Only a month now and they would be in Paris. Late summer in Paris, warm nights and Paradise…
And this wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. He rubbed his eyes, which felt gritty, as if full of sand from today’s long drives.
“You’re on duty at midnight, aren’t you?” Madari said. “You should go home and try to get a couple of hours rest.”
Jahni shook his head. No. He wouldn’t leave Madari’s side until duty compelled him. “I’m fine. I’m only on-call, so I can sleep at the barracks. You’re going to take a few days leave?”
“Yes, the colonel insisted.” He grimaced. “I must have looked bad this afternoon. Colonel Rahama took one look at me and told me to take a week’s leave before returning to duty.”
“Faris, you do look bad. You need to catch up on your sleep. You sat up all those nights with Youssef and helped his family so much. You deserve your rest.”
“Just promise you’ll call me if someone hijacks a plane.”
“No. You can watch it on the news.”
That provoked a small laugh and Jahni smiled to see it. “I’ll make us something to eat in a minute,” he said. “I know, nothing much,” he added, when Madari sat up as if to protest. “As if I could in that huge, space-age kitchen of yours.”
Madari sighed. “You’re right. It’s too big. Too elaborate. This whole place is too big.” He looked around scowling. “Big and empty, and expensive. I’ve had enough of it.”
“I was only kidding,” Jahni said, alarmed at the sudden change of mood.
“No. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I was afraid of getting somewhere too small, but went too far the other way. I’m going to start looking for somewhere new tomorrow.”
Jahni nodded. “I did say to you when you moved in that it seemed a bit too big.”
“I should always listen to you,” Madari said, doing the teasing himself now.
“I am your right-hand man.”
Waking late the morning after Youssef’s funeral, Madari heard the housekeeper at work out in the living areas and grimaced again at having to have someone come in every day to look after the flat. Lying in bed, the ceiling appeared a mile above him and the room seemed to be the size of a soccer pitch. He found his address book and called his property agent from the phone by his bed.
Mr Nafi, the owner of the agency, surprised Madari by calling him back personally, and only a few hours later, right after lunch.
“Hello, Colonel Madari,” Mr Nafi said. “So glad to have caught you at home. I received your message that you’re looking for another property. As it happens, we have something that came onto our books only yesterday that I think will suit. The owner is looking for a quick sale, so the sooner you can take a look at it the better.”
“I’m free now,” Madari said. In his mind he already saw himself packing to move. This felt like perfect timing.
“Then can I call in thirty minutes?”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Mr Nafi arrived in his Mercedes twenty-five minutes later. He didn’t give such personal service to all clients, Madari knew, only those ‘special’ clients. Ones with prestige and money, in other words.
“Colonel, delighted to meet you again,” he said, getting out of the car and removing his sunglasses before shaking Madari’s hand. He glanced up at the apartment building Madari had just emerged from. “Will you be selling on the lease for this property?”
“Yes. I found it a little larger than I require. My own mistake,” he said, raising a hand to reassure Nafi that he hadn’t been at fault when he showed Madari the flat. “I’m quite happy for you to handle the sale.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we’ll sell it on quickly for you and at a nice profit. Shall we go?”
He held open the passenger door for Madari and in a moment they were on their way through the city, chatting politely. A slight sense of unreality came over Madari because everything was moving so fast. He wondered if he might still be in bed and dreaming, though Mr Nafi’s plump and expensively dressed frame beside him seemed undeniable solid.
“The location of the flat is good,” Nafi said. “Closer to your barracks in fact. I’m sorry, I have no pictures or literature to give you. As I said, it only just came onto our books and there’s been no time to prepare the usual sales material.” He smiled. “Perhaps we won’t need to.”
“Perhaps not.” Madari looked around to find they were driving into a part of the city he was very familiar with.
“What street is this flat on?”
“This one,” Nafi said, applying the brakes. “We’re here now.”
Madari stared out of the window at the gate he was so familiar with. It couldn’t be… No, there were other apartment buildings on the street, this might just be the nearest parking space.
But when they got out, Mr Nafi went to the gate and took out a key to unlock it. “The owner has gone out, so you can have some privacy for the viewing,” he said. He stopped when he realised Madari hadn’t followed him inside. “Is something wrong, sir?”
“Oh… no. It’s just… I know someone who lives in this building.”
“Ah, then you may be neighbours.”
“Yes…” Madari said. “Neighbours.” Could that possibly be a good idea? Mr Nafi was looking at him strangely now, so he shook himself from staring up at the building and followed him inside.
“Here we are,” Mr Nafi said, stopping at a door. The door into Sophia’s flat.
Madari saw Sophia’s car drive into the underground car park and got out of his car. He hadn’t actually been waiting here since he’d told Mr Nafi he was sorry, he couldn’t buy this flat. But he had gone home and come back straight away in his own car. After an hour, he felt foolish. He should have just called round this evening. Perhaps there was a perfectly good explanation. Sophia could sell her flat if she wanted to. It wasn’t his business.
But he couldn’t wait until tonight. Because fear gripped him. That she wasn’t just moving. That she was leaving. He approached her car, seeing her and Alex getting out, hearing their voices. He was about to call out, when Alex suddenly stopped chatting to Sophia and spun around, pointing a pistol right at Madari. He heard the click as she cocked it.
“Alex!” he called, stepping closer, into the light, careful to keep his hands clear of his body. “It’s alright. It’s me.” She checked the pistol and he sighed with relief. “Good reflexes, Miss Black.”
“Try to walk less quietly,” she said with a smile. Sophia looked puzzled at her words, but Madari understood. He walked softly as he’d been trained to. And Alex heard the sound of someone being stealthy, as she’d been trained to.
“I promise to clump around like an elephant in future,” he said.
“What are you doing here, Faris?” Sophia asked. She had a tense expression, probably angry with him for lurking in her car park. It was undoubtedly suspicious behaviour. Or was she tense about other things? About what she must now suspect he knew?
“I need to talk to you.” He glanced at Alex. “In private.”
“You can go for the day, Alex,” Sophia said. “Faris will see me upstairs.”
Alex picked up her shoulder bag, made her goodbyes and let herself into a car parked beside Sophia’s. As she drove away Madari turned back to Sophia.
“Why are you selling your flat?” he asked, unable to wait any longer.
Sophia made him wait for the answer though. “Let’s go upstairs,” she said. “I don’t want to discuss this in a car park.”
She made him wait after they got upstairs, too, while she made tea. Madari paced in the living room, chafing at the delay, not even sparing a moment to pet Giotto, as he usually did. The cat was now sitting on a windowsill with an affronted air.
“How did you find out?” Sophia asked, bringing in the tray of tea things and sitting down. “Are you spying on me, Faris?”
“No, of course not. I happened to be looking for a new flat and my agent brought me here to view this one.” He sat, but perched on the edge of the seat, unable to relax. “He said you want a quick sale. Why? Are you… are you leaving?”
She paused in the act of pouring the tea, said, “Yes,” and continued pouring.
“Why?” The word came out harsh, like a demand and she gave him a look that spoke volumes about his right to demand answers from her that way. “I’m sorry. Please, will you tell me why?”
She handed him a cup and he took it mechanically, not looking at it. She could hand him a cup of poison at this moment and he’d drink it without noticing anything strange.
“I have to leave Qumar,” she said, voice shaking a little. “I can’t afford to live here anymore.”
“Can’t afford… but you told me your husband’s will left you well provided for.”
“It did. I placed the money in the hands of my accountant here and… it’s gone.”
“He stole it?” Madari jumped to his feet, only barely avoiding spilling his tea. He slammed the cup down on the table.
“No!” Sophia protested. “No, he didn’t steal it! He lost it. He invested it and he lost it. Mine and many of his other clients. Please sit down.”
“Has he been arrested?”
“No, of course not. I told you, he didn’t steal it. But he’s gone. He’s disappeared. He hasn’t taken the money, he just lost it.”
“We’ll see about that.” Madari took out his mobile phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“A friend at the police department. They’ll find the man. They’ll get your money back.”
“The police are already looking for him. And the money is gone. He doesn’t have it. It’s gone!” Her voice rose on the last word and cracked and he looked down to see tears in her eyes. Ashamed of his futile anger he closed the phone and sat down.
“My dear, I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?”
“There’s nothing you can do. Unless you’re going to make me a good offer for this flat.” She rubbed her eyes and smiled a brave smile. “If I sell the flat and most of the furniture, perhaps some jewellery, I may be able to stay here for another couple of years. But after that… I can’t work here, you know that -”
“I could see to it that you’re awarded a work permit quickly,” he said. Her expression stopped him. “I just want to help, Sophia.”
“Some things you can’t fix, Faris. I think that it may be better to go home to Italy now rather than to spend the last of my money on living expenses.”
“It could be that this is the right time to go. There’s a lot of anti-foreign sentiment in the city these days.”
That felt like a slap in the face. Even if his unit wasn’t directly responsible for dealing with that, still he couldn’t help but feel he’d failed her. She didn’t feel safe here.
“That’s only a small core of troublemakers.”
“They vandalised the graves in the Jewish and Christian cemeteries,” she said, referring to an incident that had happened a few weeks ago. “That’s not just troublemaking, that’s hatred.”
“And even the damn Sunrise condemned that. It outraged the whole city. Look, I know there have been some incidents on the streets, but you have Alex.”
“Faris, even if I could work here, I wouldn’t be able to afford Alex.”
That stopped him cold. He’d grown used to the idea that she was protected.
“I will pay her,” he said.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“It’s because of me that you need her. I insist. Sophia, you don’t have to leave. I can help.”
“I will buy the flat and you can continue to live here.”
He saw her stiffen. “And my bills?”
“Whatever you need. Please, I don’t want to see you selling your jewellery.” The thought was horrible. He could never stand by and see it happen.
“No!” she snapped. “I am not your kept woman.”
Her vehemence too him aback. But it shouldn’t have surprised him – she’d never allowed him to pay her bills when they were a couple. She allowed him to pay for meals, and buy her gifts, but nothing else.
“Sophia, I’m not asking for anything in return if that’s what you think.”
“Then I’d be a charity case?” Her tone was frosty. “Like little Kibibi?”
“No! That’s not what I mean!”
“I know what you mean, Faris.” She sighed and her voice softened. “I’m sorry. I know you want to help. But you know I can’t allow what you’re suggesting. And it would cause a scandal, you know that.”
“Could your brothers help you?”
“Support me, you mean?” She shrugged. “Probably. But I don’t want to depend on their charity either. They should be spending their money on their children, not on me.”
“Sophia, I don’t want you to go.” He whispered the words, realising why he was so full of unacceptable solutions to her problem. Because it was his problem too. He couldn’t lose her.
“I don’t want to go,” she said, her voice quivering. When he looked up he saw tears start from her eyes. “Of course I don’t want to go. This is my home.”
“Oh, Sophia.” He rose and went to her. She stood and let him take her into his arms.
“My life is here. My work at the charity. My friends. Like you.” She buried her head against his chest and though made no sounds he felt the sobs shaking her body.
He couldn’t lose another friend. He buried one friend yesterday, he wouldn’t say goodbye to another today. He had to do something for her. He had to.
“Sophia,” he said, making her look up, her eyes still bright with tears. “I could buy your flat, and you could continue to live here, with me supporting you, me paying for Alex –”
“I already said no.”
“Let me finish, please. I could do all of that and nobody could say it was wrong – if you were my wife.”