The vet gave a smile so meek and mild it was scary. “I’ve given the dog a sedative,” he said to Mrs Nahal. “He’ll calm down in ten minutes at most.”
“Good job,” she replied. “The dog is the last thing I have left in this hateful world.” The vet gave her a startled look, and she added, “Apart from my dear husband of course.” After those despairing words, she resumed her sobbing.
Five minutes later, the dog was dead. Mrs Nahal said nothing of any account, but gave an extended scream, which the vet found quite unjustified.
After a further five minutes, Mrs Nahal was dead. She keeled over on the floor, but we should not suspect the motives of the floor. It was her heart, which, once it had taken its decision, would not have given even a bullet the chance to relish its defeat in the battle to end her miserable life. Besides, the five minutes the idiotic woman wasted lamenting over her dog were not a fair and just reflection of the loyalty that the memory of the poor dog deserved. More important still, both she and the dog had left the surgery of the optimistic vet with hearts that called out for mercy, or, if you want an accurate picture, her fat husband was raining insults down on the dog, wishing that God would resurrect him in the next life as a rat. That was Mrs Nahal’s spoilt dog’s greatest fear, something that her husband considered crazy and against the natural order. For it had so happened that on the very day that Mrs Nahal bought the dog from a pet shot in the city centre, she left him in the garden to enjoy the sunshine while she went back inside to make herself a coffee. A few moments later, she heard a fearful howl coming from the dog. In a panic, she rushed to open the door. The dog had seen a rat in the garden, gone crazy, and instantly run away howling in irrational terror. No sooner had the woman opened the door than the dog leapt inside. She fell over and broke her leg. The rat died of overexcitement.
“Bad luck has killed this miserable woman,” thought the hateful husband. Many of those who knew Mrs Nahal well did not consider that blasphemy at all.
Nahal was born to rich and highly regarded parents. For half her life, however, she was not their daughter. Not because she decided to abandon them, but simply because she did not have the opportunity.
Her father did something stupid: he consented to a trip to the countryside with her mother when she was nine-months pregnant. Coming back from the trip on a steep and windy road, she started to feel labour pains. He headed quickly to a modest hospital in a crowded working-class neighbourhood. There really wasn’t any other option, and she gave birth there. Nobody realised, however, that the baby they took home was the daughter of another woman who had given birth at the same time. That woman only had her elderly mother with her for company and the two expectant mothers were brought together by the shared pain of contractions. Before leaving the hospital the stranger gave Nahal’s mother a photograph of herself as a souvenir and wrote down her home telephone number for her. They remained friends for not very long afterwards. They chatted on the phone, warmly to begin with, gradually cooling over time, until it went cold and they were no longer in touch.
The baby spent a long time in a big hospital. At the time, it did not appear she had much chance of survival as she had been born extremely underweight. In time, however, her health improved and she turned out to have blond hair. Now that was a major disaster that nobody had foreseen.
Blond hair did not run in either side of her family. The only explanation, therefore, was that the mother had importuned the baby from another little beggar, one who had exploited the loneliness of her manless bed and dug his filthy claws into her soft flesh before moving on to knock on other doors. Her husband was consumed with doubts and his life turned into an unendurable torment. He cast aspersions whenever the opportunity arose. He also wanted to learn the truth. For reasons to do with an old passion, he did not, for example, want his wife to confess her infidelity. Such a simple solution would not satisfy him. Nor would hearing it from the man who had made her pregnant bring him any joy. The pleasure would be in finding out for himself, a project he embarked on as soon as he discovered the matter.
Her parents had not slept together for a long period before the birth of their child. Her husband did not like marital congress in the first place. Less than a fortnight after getting married, he could no longer countenance the thought of her even sharing his bed.
Coincidentally, he had bought a studio from a penniless artist, intending to turn it into something useful in future. When he went to complete the sale, he found the artist at work on a painting of two lovers, perhaps husband and wife, lying on a large bed. “Good Lord! Technically, you’ve done an excellent painting, but the subject is odious!”
The artist ashed his cigarette into his cup of coffee and made to speak, but Mr Hanafi went on, “I don’t mean to offend, Mr Painter. This painting is well executed, but its subject is still ridiculous, trivial. People need bread, not an image of bread.”
The artist took two longs drags of his cigarette in quick succession, threw it on the floor with a theatrical gesture, then stamped it out with his heel as if crushing a cockroach. “Likewise, I don’t mean to offend, Mr Breadmaker, but I feel pity for people who talk about subjects they don’t understand. Have you come to complete the sale or to make me rue the life I’ve wasted by not working as a breadmaker?”
“I have actually come to pay for your painting shop,” he said, then winked as he rubbed his bag.
“Painting shop?” rebuffed the artist. “I considered it a gallery. But of course, if only I had a little good taste,” he added sarcastically.
“I have another deal for you. Don’t get so angry. I swear it would be no better if I called it the stock exchange of painting. If only its income paid the bills!”
The painter’s patience was at an end, but the sight of the bag bulging with cash made him stifle himself. “You mentioned another deal.”
“You’re catching on. I’ll buy this painting off you provided you make a few changes.”
“Over my dead body!”
“I’ll pay double the price, but you have to paint yellow tape around this ridiculous bed.”
“Yellow tape? But why?”
“The kind that investigators put around the scene of the crime.”
“For twice the price I’ll add a corpse that looks like you. I’ll remove my signature that’s all.”
“Who wants your ludicrous signature. Write my name instead of your own if you want. Now, my friend, lets finish the deal. Come and sign. All the paperwork is ready.”
“Okay. To hell with art!”
He took the painting with him and went home. He put it in the bedroom in place of another picture. He contemplated it with considerable pride; he had had a stroke of genius, something that failed artist would never have. Now he no longer needed to say much to set out his stall with that woman. When his wife saw it, she understood. She no longer went into the bedroom. She was pregnant again and, in theory, did not need him beside her for the sake of relations, as she saw it.
In his room, he sat thinking about how to discover the truth. He could hire a private detective and spare himself the effort, but he was nostalgic about his youth and his first job. Those days still had good memories for him. They had set him up financially and he had become one of the city’s wealthy. No, he had yet to forget his no-good past. A few days later, God lent a hand when he made his wife miscarry in the bathroom, and she lost her second child without him needing to spend a penny on the abortion he kept asking her to have.
The workers started moving the useless stuff that the artist had left behind. Piles of junk: scraps of coloured paper, wood for picture frames, mouldings of different sizes, easels, canvas, acrylic paints, pieces of white material and others spattered with colour, paint brushes, dyes, piles of newspapers and magazines, invitations and publicity for art exhibitions, unfinished paintings, and several different-size boxes. The artist, it seemed, was going to give up painting altogether, or he wanted to dispose of all the evidence that reminded him of his indigent days. The only people who went into the gallery were some bone-idle friends of his, who came to gossip and smoke hashish. Highly secure, it was an ideal location.
“Throw all these things away!” shouted the new owner in an effort to get the workers to hurry up. “Come on, lazy. You don’t deserve the money I pay you.”
The only thing on his mind was how to divorce his wife without losing money. The final alimony settlement would be painful if he was forced to divorce her. A better idea was for that blasted woman to die, leaving him to bring up the little girl on his own. He was determined to change her name; it would be absurd for her to keep that ridiculous name her whole life long. Ideas flew around his head as he wracked his mind for a suitable stratagem. One that would let him learn the truth and free him from his domestic calamity in one fell swoop. Years before, he had always boasted of his mental prowess: “This bald head is not to be taken lightly, it contains a supercomputer.”
He always averred that his intelligence was the source of his wealth, since it was not until his final days working in the Secret Police that he came to own money. He quit the job voluntarily and left his small town never to return. In the city he had built himself up by his own efforts, and everyone knew him as rich and arrogant.
The blond little girl turned ten years old. She was pleasant and burned with intelligence, but her father forbade her to uncover her hair. He never wanted to see her blond hair; he loathed it. He never told her the truth. All Nahal knew was that her father was a religious man, who did not want his little girl to go to Hell.
“But my mother does not wear a headscarf. Why do I have to?” she would ask.
“But your mother does not come from a good background. Her family are renowned for their moral turpitude!”
The girl did not wait long to tell her mother, who fell into a black depression. She did not leave her room again until she was carried out dead. The curtain then dropped on that unfortunate chapter in her father’s life. He seemed much more relaxed and decided never to think the old secret again; it was buried for good with his wife. He gathered up all her things and the workers came and dumped them in the storeroom.
Mr Hanafi had always been a miser. He deprived his daughter of everything he could so easily have provided, even if he had been a struggling employee. On this account, he refused to buy her an office after she graduated from university. “There’s no need for extravagance. I’ll give you the key to the old storeroom. It’s perfect for the job.”
“But, Dad, I’ve chosen a better spot for it.”
“I’m not discussing it anymore.”
He broke her heart and she slept in floods of tears. In the morning she headed for the old storeroom in the company of one of the workers, who would help her clean it out. The cleaning over, she decided to get rid of the heavy boxes, that had turned almost colourless because of the sheer quantity of accumulated dust.
“Come on, open these boxes so we can see what’s inside.”
“Probably old and worthless stuff. I suggest we bin them straightaway.”
“Don’t argue with me! I don’t want to cause a problem with my father.”
The worker’s intuition was actually correct and he gave her disgruntled looks as he threw away books, notebooks, and other useless things. The dust worked its way into his lungs and he coughed sporadically. He must have cursed her a fair few times too. She went over to the pile of junk and put it back in the boxes. She gave a shout as she dusted off a photograph in a filthy gilt frame. She scrutinized it for a while. “My God! What’s a photo of my friend Miriam’s mother doing in this old box?”
The sense of surprise did not leave her; she waited until the worker had finished getting rid of all the rubbish, went back to the house and made a telephone call. “Hello, Layla. Guess what I found.”
Layla did not return the greeting, but asked directly, “What did you find, dear friend? A new boy to marry?”
“A photo of your Mum.”
“Really? Where did you find it? But you’ve never visited our house. How do you know it’s my Mum?”
“Have you forgotten? A woman was with you when we went on the graduation trip! If you don’t mind, I could come round today. I’m excited to see you too.”
Nahal jotted down the address of her friend, who had recently moved to the city. She set off half an hour before the seven o’clock meeting. Miriam was so eager to see her, she dispensed with all formalities and gasped in amazement, “My God! I’ve never seen this photo before.”
Mariam shouted for her father, who came from his room in annoyance and, without looking at Nahal, asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you shouting like that?” He stared at the photograph for a long while. His eyes glistened with tears and he mumbled, “God have mercy on you, Umm Layla! Where did you find it?”
She pointed to her friend, and he looked her over for a few moments and then said, “Excuse me, Miss, do I know you?”
“We’ve not met before.”
“Your face seems familiar.”
Nahal told him her story. He was stunned by the photograph, and some misgivings and suspicions played on his mind. There was an old wound eating away at his heart that he had never mentioned to anyone, but deep down, he resolved to find out how the photo had come into her possession. Nahal felt very sorry about the sadness lodged in his heart. He looked nothing like the man in the picture on the wall, proud with his ribbons and swagger. The faded calendar hanging next to it showed August 1995.
“What do you think about me asking my father about this photograph? Please let me show it to him.”
“I don’t mind at all. But why don’t you both come round and we can all know the story?”
It was a good idea, and Nahal agreed at once. The next evening, at precisely seven o’clock, Layla opened the door. She hugged her friend and welcomed her father very warmly. Her father, the colonel, was in his room and he came out, preceded by his broad smile, to welcome them. He stopped in his tracks, his face a mix of every emotion. He looked at the person sitting on the sofa but said nothing. Mr Hanafi got such a shock, his heart stopped for good.
For months after Mr Hanafi’s death, Nahal really suffered. She was unable to get over the shock, and it was hard for her to accept her new situation. Perhaps Layla had it worse; all we can say is that both young women were miserable. One discovered that she had lived her whole life with the wrong family, and that her supposed father had committed a grave breach of trust. The other girl only saw her real father for a few minutes before his tragic death, and she then went to live in a home she had no connection with.
For years and years she remembered her father’s last words. He spoke with difficulty since that tragic day. She sat in front of him, splayed out in his wheelchair, and he told her the story for the hundredth time: “After we raided the drug dealer’s house and arrested him, that wretched detective Hanafi vanished off the face of the earth. He took a suitcase full of money with him. I never worked in the Secret Police again afterwards.”
Her father fell silent after wheezing out his words, then with the same frustration added, “I was certain he was still alive, even though he left not a trace.”
She did not forget his words, even when she was going to the vet’s to have her dog treated. She had headed out a while before with the dog, but it was a journey she would never come back from. Her husband was completely convinced that bad luck killed her.