Madari looked up from his paperwork to the man standing at his open office door. It was the young historian Rahama had recently engaged to write a history of the regiment.
“Hello, Mr Madaan. What can I do for you?”
“Do you have a moment?”
“Of course. Come in, sit down. How is your research going?”
“Oh, fine, sir, very well,” he said as he took a seat and put a stack of books and files on Madari’s desk.
“Did you have some more questions about my grandfather?” Madari asked.
“Not at the moment. I just happened to find…” he started to rummage in one of the files. “Now where did I put it? I was going through some archived purchase orders – to confirm when the regiment first started to use the Browning Hi-Power as standard issue…”
“Oh, that would be in the late nineteen-fifties,” Madari said. My father first purchased those in fact, when he was chief supply officer.”
“Yes, I confirmed that. But… ah, here it is! I found this too.”
He took out a piece of paper and handed it to Madari. The faded ink and the yellow tinge to the once white paper betrayed its age. But despite those, Madari immediately recognised his father’s handwriting.
“I just thought you might find it… interesting,” Madaan said, He stood up, gathering up his things and smiled at the puzzled look on Madari’s face. “Look at the name of the salesman.”
“The salesman? Oh!” He stared up at Madaan, who shrugged.
“It might only be a coincidence of names, but it’s… interesting.”
“Yes indeed. Thank you for this.”
Madaan nodded and left. Madari rose too and, taking the paper with him, went to Jahni’s office.
“Kahil,” he said. “Was your father ever in the wholesale fabric trade?”
“What?” Jahni stared, as if Madari had asked him if he’d like to go to the moon for lunch, an entirely baffled expression on his face that made Madari smile. “How did you know that?”
“Yes. That was one of the first businesses he owned. Before he went into the garment trade. Um, why are you asking?”
Madari gave him the paper. “It’s a purchase order, from when my father was supply officer, for fifty metres of dark green brocade. Look at the name of the salesman and the firm.”
Jahni read the paper and gasped. He looked up at Madari again. “That’s my father’s name.”
“That was his firm?”
“Yes. That’s him! What’s the date… nineteen-fifty-eight? That would fit.” He stared back at Madari. “You think our fathers met?”
“Well, they could have just spoken on the telephone. But that’s a large order and my father was very insistent on quality. I’m sure he’d have wanted to inspect the goods before he bought them.”
“My father could have been here, at the barracks.” Jahni looked around the office as if expecting to see his father here now. Or a ghost, an echo from the past.
“Or mine went to your father’s office.”
“But they met,” Jahni said. “They must have. This is…” He laughed. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s… interesting.”
“Indeed. To think they could have crossed paths when you and I were… well, you weren’t even born! I was only ten.” Madari shook his head. That day, so long ago, his father had dealt with the man who would be Jahni’s father, and then come home and perhaps read to Faris, played with him, walked in the evening sunshine with him.
“What is brocade anyway?” Jahni said.
“Hmm?” Madari said, shaking himself from his memories. “Oh, it’s a heavy fabric with raised patterns on it.”
“Like the curtains in the officer’s mess?”
Madari frowned. “The curtains…?”
“They’re green aren’t they?”
They walked into the officer’s mess, which was quiet in the late morning. The aroma of lunch wafted from the kitchens. A couple of officers sat around drinking coffee and reading newspapers, waited on by white-jacketed mess attendants.
The curtains were indeed green brocade, the patterns of stylised flower-like shapes darker than the background. They fell from brass rails and rings the top of the tall windows to just an inch or two from the carpet. Madari must have seen them thousands of times, and now he couldn’t recall how long he’d been seeing them. They were just… there.
“They can’t be from so long ago, can they?” Jahni said, as Madari stroked his hand down a curtain, the raised pattern tickling his fingers.
“Can I get you anything, sir?” It was one of the mess attendants. A young man. He’d probably know nothing, but Madari knew who would.
“Is Sergeant Hafeez on duty?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. You want me to fetch him?”
“Hafeez has been here since my grand-father’s day,” Madari explained to Jahni.
“And he was old then,” Jahni said, grinning and making Madari click his tongue at him in disapproval.
“Kahil, I’ve found it a good rule of thumb in life never to be rude about someone who has access to your food before you eat it.”
“Good rule,” Jahni admitted. “Good morning, Sergeant,” he said, with a respectful nod and smile as a white-haired man, approached them; Hafeez, the chief mess attendant.
“Good morning, sirs. You wanted me, Colonel?”
“Hello, Sergeant. I trust you are well. And your family?”
“Oh yes, sir, we’re all well, thank you for asking. How can I help you?”
“Hafeez, I want to know about these curtains.”
“The curtains, sir?” After all his years working here, Hafeez was probably used to odd requests from officers, but this one apparently took him by surprise and he looked at Madari, puzzled.
“How old are they?” Madari clarified.
“Goodness me, these have been here since your father’s day, sir. In fact he bought them.”
Madari and Jahni exchanged a glance.
“They’re still here, after all that time?” Jahni said.
“Oh yes, Captain.” He bowed his head to Madari. “Your late father was, in my opinion, the best supply officer the regiment ever had, sir. He always insisted on the best quality, whether it was food, weapons or curtain fabric.”
“Thank you. But I’m sure their longevity is as much down to how they are looked after, am I right?”
“Yes, sir.” Hafeez shook out the curtain Madari had been handling and pointed out the velvet that was sewn over the edge. “This keeps them from fraying.” He showed them the reverse of the curtain, it had a lining, dyed the same dark green, but with pale streaks where the sunlight had bleached out the colour. “The lining protects them from fading. We replace that and the edging once a year and dry clean them.”
Madari nodded. Yes, he remembered sometimes seeing the curtains gone. Hafeez motioned to gold coloured cords at the sides of the windows.
“They’re drawn with cords to minimise handling. There are moth balls placed inside the lining. Why, they could last another twenty years, barring accidents.” He chuckled. “If only I could say the same about me. But I’ll be retired long before these have to be replaced.”
“A well deserved retirement, Sergeant,” Madari said. He glanced at Jahni, to see him looking up at the curtains, one hand absently stroking the fabric. “Thank you for your help, Hafeez. Could you send us some coffee out, please?”
“At once, sir.” He hurried off to the kitchen.
“Kahil,” Madari said quietly, making him turn to look at Madari, a distant look still in his eyes. But he shook himself out of it and followed Madari to a couple of armchairs, near to a window. A junior mess attendant brought them their coffee and left them alone again. Jahni reached out to touch the velvet edging of one of the curtains.
“It’s silly,” he said. “All I can think now is how funny my father would find this if he was still here. Me sitting here with you, beside these curtains that he sold to your father before I was even born!”
Madari nodded. “My father would probably write a poem about it, using the theme of fate and metaphors about weaving, woven cloth, woven lives.”
He smiled to think of it. Could their lives have touched in other ways? Could they have passed each other on the street? Been on the same train, or in the same shop without ever knowing? Perhaps when Madari was a young man and Jahni only a boy. He wouldn’t even notice him. Just another child with his mother or father. Another face in a crowd, another voice in a chorus.
These things happened. In conversation once, they’d discovered that a restaurant Madari had visited several times while on a visit to Cairo had later become a favourite of Jahni and his student friends. They’d been in the same place, perhaps sat at the same table often, just in different times.
Small world and so many connections.
He looked up at the green curtains and imagined his father inspecting the material, with a serious look on his face. He tried to imagine Jahni’s father standing there too, but had only seen more recent pictures of him. Back then he was a young man, still unmarried, and Madari had no reference for that. The picture in his mind was really only Jahni himself. Of course that face was always in his mind.
Jahni was still holding the velvet edging of the curtain.
“You still miss your father,” Madari said, in a quiet voice. Jahni could have said the same to him.
Jahni didn’t turn, just gazed out of the window.
“I still miss him. All of them.” He looked at Madari and smiled. “But now I’ll think of him every time I come in here.”
They finished their coffee and went back to work.