It was four o’clock before we managed to get ourselves organised, have showers, find clean clothes and generally get ready to leave the flat. It was the usual story – arsing about and smoking cigarettes and talking about going outside to actually look around the city. After all, we were supposed to be immersing ourselves in its language and culture – learning things and growing as people and all kinds of Opra Winfrey stuff like that.
Jake and I hadn’t left the flat at all yesterday. To be honest, going outside was starting to become something of an issue. I don’t mean agoraphobia or anything. It wasn’t exactly that we weren’t keen to get out there and start using the language we’d been studying for over a year, but there were always other things that got in the way.
Like not being able to understand a bloody word anyone said to us, for a start. Then there was the heat at this time of year. And the humidity. And the eight flights of stairs with no lift on the way back that left you gasping for breath and sweating like Marlon Brando. And we didn’t really know anyone outside – although perhaps that should have been an argument for going out more, not less. But anyway, all these things and more, when all lumped together, kind of made it much easier to stay in the gloomy flat and order expensive pizzas and things like that. Of course, there were moments of opacity when we thought perhaps what we were doing was just wasting time and not benefiting anyone, but those moments soon passed. Or at least, we carried on what we were doing and ignored them.
So, what with all these things having made it a habit to stay inside and our basic inability to get ourselves together, the planned midday appointment with the City and Real Life in General had come and gone and it was now pushing four o’clock. Jake and I decided to say bollocks to the others and just go on ahead without them. Imran was still in the shower and Sam had just started cooking himself some pasta so we half-heartedly arranged to meet them in an hour outside the Cecil hotel, but we all knew we were talking shit and it wouldn’t really happen.
I was wearing shorts and sandals, had my sunglasses in one hand, a bag over my shoulder with the Lonely Planet, my wallet, keys and ridiculous tourist’s sunhat in it. I was ready to go. I held the door open for Jake and almost pushed him through it into the gloomy concrete stairway. The landing outside the flat was always covered in shit for some reason, no matter how often the doorman washed the steps down from top to bottom, sending gushes of dirty water under our front door in the process. We hadn’t yet worked out what days the rubbish was collected, so we just left overstuffed carrier bags outside the door whenever we though about it. They usually sat there for a few days, stinking like shit. I pulled the front door shut behind me, holding it against the sudden gust of wind that always took hold of it when it was half closed. I supposed it had something to do with the draft from the two windows we kept open in the flat, but didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it. Patting my bag to make sure my wallet and keys were still in there (it had been thirty seconds since I last checked, but the door had shut since then, and that makes a world of difference) I followed Jake round and down the tight corner of the first flight of stairs.
The stairway was a gloomy and smelly shit-hole of a place. It only got sunlight for about 2 minutes a day when the sun was directly over the open gap at the very top. There were strange scrawls on the bare concrete and open boxes on the walls with tangles of wires sticking out of them. The stairs ran down through the centre of the building with doors to the flats leading off one side. On the other were windows covered in thick dust that looked over the other half of the divided central gap in the building and which (in a friendlier and fairer world) might have been intended to house a lift. What it actually housed was an enormous amount of crap and broken bits of furniture and plastic bags. Luckily you couldn’t see much of it because the windows were so caked in shit. Strange cooking smells wafted up the shaft, coming from all the open kitchen windows pumping out the fumes of fried meat and vegetables.
When we got to the landing below us Jake stopped and turned around.
“Shit. Forgot my fags.” He sighed and started back up the steps, fumbling for his key.
“Okay, I’ll meet you at the bottom,” I said and carried on down the winding stairs, looking over the concrete banister to see who was making the foot scuffing sounds coming up the stairs from below. It was probably one of our neighbours we never spoke to.
A few floors down I came across our landlady, Rasha, who lived on the third floor, coming up the stairs with a man and a woman behind her who looked European. They were still two flights below me, so I stopped and stood to one side, waiting to let them past. Not necessarily European, I thought. American or Australian or anything really. White. I smiled at my landlady as she got closer.
“Sabah alkheer,” she said, by way of a greeting.
I sabah alkheer-ed her back and pressed myself into the wall to let them push past me in the narrow corridor, but she stopped at the top of the stairs, leaving the other two hovering awkwardly behind her.
“Yoseph, I come to see you,” she said, speaking English and mispronouncing my name as she always did.
“I bring two foreigners. They have some kind trouble.”
Now that they had been referred to, I felt justified in looking at them properly. The woman was in front, small with black curly hair and a too-large knitted jumper on. She looked tired and ill, but that might have been the light. The man stood at the bottom of the stairs but I couldn’t see him very well because he was standing in the shadows in the corner. He was tall and wore a long coat, which was odd because it was so hot. The sound of our front door slamming echoed down the stairway, followed by scuffed footsteps.
The woman took a step forward so that she was just behind Rasha.
“Parlez-vous Français?” She said.
“Err . . uh . . . non,” I said, struggling to dredge up a few words. “Mais, mon ami . . . er . . oui.” I gestured up the stairs towards the noise of Jake coming down.
“Yes. I am English,” I said, for some reason feeling stupid.
“Ok,” she said, “We speak in English.”
As she said this, Jake skipped down the last few steps and stood beside me. The man came a few steps further up and into the dim light. He was even bigger than he had seemed in the shadows and I thought he had a definite French look about him. Then I thought that was stupid because before the woman had spoken he could just as easily have been from Darwin as Dieppe. Jake put his hands in his pockets and looked a question at me.
“Um, this lady is French,” I said, since that was all I knew about her.
Jake raised his eyebrows at her and smiled.
“My name is Marie,” she said. “And I am looking for my children.”
I didn’t know what to say to that at all, so I didn’t say anything but looked over her shoulder at the man. He didn’t say anything either and she made no move to introduce him. There was a moment of silence which Rasha filled by saying, “I bring them to see you. Maybe you see foreign children.”
The woman suddenly fumbled in her cracked leather handbag and brought out two photos. “Josephine and Luc,” she said, with a heavy accent that surprised me and momentarily disguised the names. She handed me the photos. “Josephine is eight and Luc is six.” I looked at the photos and then handed them to Jake. I looked hard, wondering for a moment if it was possible that I might have seen them even though I knew I couldn’t have done. In a place like Alexandria you noticed foreigners when you saw them in the street and I was certain I hadn’t seen any foreign children while I’d been there. As the reality of what this woman was saying sank in I wished I had seen them. Jake shook his head and handed them back to the woman, saying something in French that I couldn’t follow.
“You are sure?” she asked in English. “I have the address of the building next door. I think they were there.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’ve only been here for a month and a half. I haven’t seen any children.”
“You don’t see foreign children at the University?” Asked Rasha, putting a ringed hand up to her mouth.
“Not that young,” I said, wondering exactly what our landlady thought we did at University. “Are they here alone?” I asked the woman, not knowing how else to ask her what had happened. The man put a hand on her shoulder, still not saying anything, but she didn’t react. She seemed very business-like about the whole thing.
“My husband and I live in Paris,” she said. “He worked at night. In the day he was with the children. I come home one day and found that he is gone and he taken his clothes and the children. Nothing else.” She paused for a second but I didn’t know if it was emotion or just arranging her careful English before speaking. “He didn’t even take the children’s clothes.”
It took me a second to link several different meanings to that fact, but the blank expression on her face hadn’t changed at all. Obviously she didn’t want to face any of the possible explanations any more than I did. But then why did she say it?
“That was six months ago.”
Everyone was quiet for a second, then Jake said:
“Why do you think they are here?”
“His family are from Alexandria,” she said.
Rasha inhaled sharply. “From Alexandria? What is his family name?”
Rasha tutted. “La. This is a common name. Where do they live in Alexandria?”
“I don’t know,” said Marie, shaking her head.
“You don’t know?” said Rasha, raising her eyebrows.
“You marry a man who you do not know his family? This is no good. No good. You must know.”
The silent man shuffled his feet. That seemed to be all he could do in the way of communication. Rasha opened her mouth to say something else but I managed to get there before her. “Have you checked the schools?”
Marie looked at me. Of course she had checked the schools. “I check every French language school in Caire and Alexandria.” Again, the thick accent on the place names confused me for a second.
“Of course,” I muttered, feeling totally lost in a situation that was right in front of me and yet I could barely imagine.
“But maybe they use different names,” she said with a tired voice. “I just don’t know.”
“Um, yes. Maybe.” I looked at the floor. Shit.
“Okay,” said Rasha, very loudly. “You didn’t see the children. I bring them to see top floor.”
Two Germans lived in the top floor flat but they had only arrived a couple of weeks ago and almost certainly wouldn’t have seen anything. But I didn’t say that. Rasha seemed intent on introducing them to every foreigner she knew.
“Okay, right, well. Look, if there is anything we can do . . .” I said. The woman tried a smile. “We’ll . . . we’ll ask around at the university.”
“Thank you,” she said, and handed me a card with her name and hotel phone number on it.
“Oh yes,” I said. I hadn’t thought about that.
“Come then,” said Rasha cheerfully and led them up the next flight of stairs. The man’s coat brushed against my legs as he passed but he didn’t look at me or say anything.
Jake and I stood on the landing for a few seconds listening to their echoing footsteps before walking down the thirty or so steps that were left before the entrance hall and the cracked glass door onto the street. Neither of us spoke until we were outside on the pavement in the brilliant sunshine and I had put my sunglasses on. I looked at Jake, who was squinting against the reflection of the sun off the sea and he said:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pete Munford has been studying exotic languages in a mundane world for the past three years and it has left him confused and directionless. He’s hoping that writing things like this will save him from a life of catching the 8.27 commuter train to Waterloo Station. He’s wrong.