Ali steered left, the boat heeled sharply as it crossed a sudden swell, slid into the creek then stabilized and raced the remnant of the sunset’s hues which dusk gathered, one by one, under his huge, black wings.
As the lights of the floating restaurant at the end of the creek appeared ahead, Ali pulled back at the throttle. The boat recoiled and, like a horse coming to a sudden halt, the bow titled down slightly then eased on a forward course through a maze of anchor ropes of ships and boats that lined up the two shorelines of the creek.
He put the boat in neutral and gestured to Ahmed to take his place. The latter sat behind the steering wheel and watched Ali as he stood on the tip of the bow and leaned forward with the rope in his hands. He played the throttle cautiously, all the time waiting for a signal to pull back and send the boat neutral for the long night.
“Lie truthfully to Fatina. Tell her you had a great time,” Ali suggested to Ahmed as he tied the rope to the floating red buoy.
“Tell her that on my behalf,” Ahmed requested, roiling under a severe bout of nausea. “If I were to open my mouth, she’d see what she gave me for breakfast.”
“Ouch!” Little Omar opened his mouth wide to his brother in law. “Do you see in my mouth something that shouldn’t be there normally?”
Ahmed sucked air noisily. “My God, there’s a fishing hook. Quick, ask Ali to get it out for you.”
“Where’s the hook come from?” Omar said in panic.
“I’m kidding you,” Ahmed said, forcing himself to laugh. “There’s nothing in there. What do you want me to see, anyway? Teeth as sharp as those of a shark and a three feet long tongue.”
“Don’t you see my stomach?”
Ahmed tapped the kid’s stomach. “Your stomach is down here.”
“It’s up,” Omar insisted. “I feel it pushing through my throat.”
“Do you want me to push it down with the fishing rod?”
“Do you want to kill me?”
“No, I don’t. Staying alive is a more fitting punishment for you.”
“I’ll tell Fatina what you’ve just said.”
“I’ve said nothing. Where’re the witnesses?”
“Ali will testify for me.”
They both looked at Ali who felt their stares and turned to see their pale faces. “Your misfortune had the eastern wind intercept us on our way back. The boat started porpoising and your stomachs bounced with it,” Ali said, collecting his gear. “It’s an unfortunate experience you will never forget but don’t worry, next time nothing will bother you.”
“Of course nothing will bother us next time,” Ahmed said as he too collected his gear while keeping his eyes cast down for fear loosing control of his stomach. “There will simply be no next time for me.”
“Me too,” Omar said while holding a tiny fish at the end of his fishing line. “I’m giving up on fishing; this is going to be my last trip. It isn’t worth it.”
“How will you become a man if you stay glued to the television?” Ali said to Omar.
“Why would I want to become a man? I’m fine like this. I get everybody’s attention and they don’t expect much from me.”
“No problem with that, but you should at least give Rama a chance to miss you.”
“Rama is going to laugh at me when she sees my fish. I know her. She’ll look at it and ask if anyone happens to have a magnifying glass.”
Ali leaned and whispered in Omar’s ear.
“Really,” Omar said, eyeing the fish box.
Omar set doubtful, little eyes on Ahmed. “He’ll tell on me,” he whispered to Ali.
“He doesn’t know,” Ali whispered back. “He spent all the time bent overboard with his mouth open.”
Encouraged, Omar opened the fish box and grabbed a large fish by the tail. He turned to Ahmed who had been watching him attentively and said plainly, “I’m taking my fish.”
“Is this your fish?” Ahmed said, struggling to laugh.
“Of course, it is my fish. You don’t know. You spent all the time vomiting overboard.”
“Me?” Ahmed said, looked at an Ali bending and twisting with a hearty laugh. “Have you forgotten that your mouth disgorged so much that it didn’t leave much for another outlet?”
“And you whistled to the girls on the other boat. Fatina won’t be pleased.”
Giving in, Ahmed laughed vigorously. “What I meant to say is that I thought your fish was bigger.”
“You didn’t see me take it out of the box, did you?”
“You didn’t see me whistling to the girls, did you?”
“None of us saw the other.”
Omar climbed the bow and jumped on the sandy shore full of grace and pride.
“Why don’t you come over?” Ahmed said to Ali.
Ali had finished hooking the cover to the front and began to spread it over the boat. “I don’t think so,” he said while detaching the fuel line before covering the outboard. “I need a quick shower.”
“You can have your shower at our place.”
“Fatina would kick me out if she saw me like that.”
Ahmed blinked at Ali, “Got an adventure up your sleeves?”
“I got nothing but an urgent need for a shower and sleep.”
“What about Hilda?”
“Probably she too has a shower and sleep on her mind, but not on my bed.”
“There was nothing to break. It was never more than occasional companionship.”
“You’ve got used to being alone. You can’t bear to have any person in your life,” Ahmed said, giving a hand in attaching the cover.
“If I found the girl whom I want to take care of, I’ll think about it.”
“You haven’t found one of all the girls you have known?”
“I haven’t found one whom I had a reason to reject but I’m not good for any of them.”
“Firyal is OK, isn’t she?”
“Very much so, but I’m not in a hurry.”
“I see that you aren’t in a hurry for anything these days.”
“I and time are now at peace. I don’t rush him; he doesn’t rush me.”
“But you would for a girl like Rana?”
“For a girl like Rana, no hesitation.”
“Like her, or Rana specifically?”
Ali suddenly had a feeling of discomfort that he couldn’t dismiss quickly. He emptied his lungs. “I’ve nothing on my mind now except a shower, a dry shirt, a glass of beer three feet long and a bed I want to sleep in alone.”
“My shirt is wet too,” Ahmed said, walking away from him and the subject fast. He picked up his gear and started the climb towards the restaurant.
“It’s the drizzle,” Ali shouted. “You might want to tell Omar to change his shirt quick. It’s cold on the terrace.”
Ahmed stood on the edge of the terrace and watched Ali as the latter finished covering the boat. “Fatina is here,” he shouted down to Ali and added with excitement, “And Taysir is here as well.”
Ahmed waved to his wife who waved back by raising the baby. Omar stood beside her, showing the fish to Rana.
“Did you catch it all by yourself?” Rana asked.
“Of course, I did.”
“Didn’t such a big fish scare you as you got her out of the water?”
“Of course not. I had caught a bigger one.”
“As big as the one I saw in Ali’s boat when he rescued Rama?”
“Maybe bigger; just a tiny bit bigger.”
“Omar!” Fatina laughed, reproaching her kid brother. “You’re talking to Rana not Rama.” She looked at Rana who was laughing too, though inconspicuously. “At least he doesn’t know how to lie.”
“I don’t lie,” Omar protested, blushing. He quickly found support for his outrageous claim. “Ask him!” he said, pointing at Ahmed who had just arrived.
“Ask me what?” Ahmed said before becoming aware of the presence of Rana behind his wife.
“You’ve met Rana,” Fatina said to Ahmed, holding his baby son to him. Addressing Rana she added, “I guess you know this guy very well. He doesn’t need an introduction.”
“Rana, of course” Ahmed said, looking surprised to see her. “Rama’s sister?”
“Is that’s what I’ve become now?” Rana said, shaking her hand, “Rama’s sister.”
“When did you come back?” Ahmed asked, looking over his shoulder. Not having seen Ali coming, he smacked his forehead and whistled. “I’ve forgotten something important in the boat,” he said to his wife and trotted back before Rana could respond.
“This one is an expert in lying,” Fatina said to Rana, jesting. “He went back to warn Ali, of course.”
“Warn him about me?”
“Not warn him, crazy. Inform him of your presence,” Fatina said then added whispering, “Maybe we should have stayed at home. Never surprise a man, he’ll surprise you more. You should have given him a chance to be ready for you.”
“I wanted to look at the sea.”
“The sea would have come to you energetic, refreshed, and elegant. They come out of the sea like the labourers in a soap factory. Maybe he doesn’t want you to see him in such a condition.”
“He doesn’t want me to see him in such a condition or not at all?” Rana said as an expression of anxiety overtook her face.
“Don’t say that. Of course he wants to see you.”
A smile reformed on Rana’s face but it failed to conquer her anxiety, remaining instead suspended on her lips.
“Come on! Cheer up,” Fatina reproached her friend. “Do you want him to see you in such a state after six months of separation? It’ll stick in his memory.”
“I don’t care!” she shrugged. “I told you that I’ve come to look at the sea and I’ve seen it.”
Fatina held up the baby to her. “Hold him. That’ll change your mood. You may feel happy or upset but Ali won’t know the reason in either case. Come on, take him.”
Rana had carried the baby most of the time she spent at Fatina’s house and had no desire to carry her own head. But she took him in her chest. Looking in his eyes, he looked back at her, unsure of what she was going to do. He then noticed how contracted her face was, his lips shivered then puckered. Expecting to see tears in the little eyes, her face bloomed, her eyes sparkled and her lips glowed. She laughed, cuddled, babbled and caressed his nose. He smiled and talked back to her. Suddenly, he tilted his head to see the source of the shadow which had suddenly fallen on his face, depriving him of her exclusive attention.
“I wondered if I would find myself a dad,” Ali said to Rana in as much familiarity as if he had been talking to her for a long time and only paused to make a comment to a third person in their company. “I lay in bed waiting with the telephone on my chest.”
Rana’s eyes misted, “I saw myself a mum,” she said. She switched the baby to her left arm, hugging him close to heart. With the index of her right hand she made small circles around his face, “Her face had more emphasised roundness, her nose looked thinner and her eyebrows narrower. She couldn’t bear being left by her dad for a moment. But it turned out to be just a dream.”
“Fortunately,” Ali said.
She wiped her tears and stared at him for a while, “Why, fortunately?”
“Who would want to have a child in these circumstances?”
“Those circumstances,” she corrected, moving her eyes back to the baby.
“They have become ‘those’ now?”
“Yes! They are over.”
“Legion doesn’t have undesirable spirits anymore?”
“Where have they gone?”
“To the swines.”
“And the swines fell off a cliff and drowned in the sea?”
“Yes! And the demon has gone back to his den in hell at long last.”
“Are you sure?”
She felt as if he wanted her to doubt herself. Unable to understand why, she said, slightly sharply, “Of course, I am. Why do you want me to have doubts?”
“I don’t want you to have doubts. I just want to be sure.”
“You can be sure. There are no more evil spirits in Legion.”
“That’s a great accomplishment. What about the exams?”
“I don’t know the result yet, but I guess I’ll have a high score, as usual.”
“Another great accomplishment.”
“You say it so casually as if they are worthless accomplishments,” she said, fluttered her right hand in the air after making sure her grip of the baby was tight.
“How could they be worthless?” he said, looking into her eyes while trying to remember and forget at the same time.
“I’ve accomplished a great deal but you look at me as if I’ve returned from the hairdresser with a cut you don’t like.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
“I’m afraid that it’s more than that. You don’t seem happy to see me.”
“It’s tiredness only.”
“You haven’t even said, ‘How are you’? You haven’t said a thing!”
The low tide started, exposing the heavy ropes that tied the boats to the piers. Ali visualised the high tide of the sea stopping the receding water of the creek and forcing it back till it almost reached the level of the terrace, threatening to drown his heart. “I’m sorry!” he said to Rana. “It seems that I’m unable to think correctly.”
Her face hardened, “Let’s leave it to another chance. That’s if you want one.”
“Yes, let’s leave it to another chance. I’m sorry.”
“I should be sorry for having come here.”
She walked a few steps then stopped. She wanted to give him a chance to change his mind.
Fatina notice her friend’s silent withdrawal. Nondescript apprehensions touched her heart and moved her head in dismay. Rana had cried from the pain of longing but the flames of her yearning died down so suddenly. No wonder she wanted to leave the place, Fatina thought. Ali was waiting, everything in him was waiting, but Fatina was no longer sure of what exactly he was waiting for. They had talked a lot about Rana. She heard from him details that were totally new to her. There were other details that she had heard a lot about but had nothing new and were ignored first by her then by him, though they continued to talk about them with diminishing enthusiasm.
She sighed deeply. “Why don’t these imbeciles see that they are solely made for each other? Why don’t they open their eyes to what all the people who know them see? Why isn’t her head resting on his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her waist? Why don’t they want to admit their love for each other?” Fatina wondered. “I want them to be together, love each other, get married and be happy because they have had enough of everything else.”
She once had a different opinion which she based on things heard from Ali and old college classmates of her but that was ancient history. Ali had stopped talking about Rana, but he listened attentively when she talked about her.
She remembered a dream. Cold, heavy air struck her face as she threw herself at Ali. In her immediate reality, just as in her dream, she pictured herself alternating between crying and laughing as she held him gently, cuddled, and hugged him close to her heart. But she also heard Rana saying to her in tears: I beg of you. I have no one. I’ll love him more than you do. You’ll see.”
She looked at the baby in Rana’s arms but she didn’t look at her baby. Looking at Rana, she wondered if the latter was indeed capable of loving Ali. She had an opinion about that matter too and she wondered time and again if her old opinion had stayed the same. There was no doubt that it had changed but only a bit. “Something must be done before it is too late,” she said to herself, “It must be done now.”
She drew closer and looked into Rana’s eyes behind her baby. She then took the baby and held it close to her chest. “He’s hungry,” she said to her. “He’s going to cry any minute.” She turned to Ahmed, “Are you going to take me home or shall I breastfeed him in public?” She empowered the verbal ultimatum by slipping her hand into her bosom.
“I’ll take you right away,” said Ahmed, and moved fast. “She’ll do it! Crazy this friend of yours is,” he said to Rana.
“Come on, move it!” Fatina said to Ahmed then turned to her brother. “Give the fish to Abu Murad and come along.”
Omar hid the fish behind his back. “I want to keep it.”
“No, you don’t want it. Who is going to clean it?”
Hossa has no time. Taysir is enough for her.”
“Mum too has no time. Taysir is enough for her.”
Omar protested, “Everything is for Taysir. I have needs too.”
“Rama will take care of you. Come along.”
“Does she know how to clean a big fish?” Omar said, looking at Rana.
“Do you want her to take care of you and clean the fish as well?” Rana said, forcing a smile.
“Mum takes care of dad, cleans fish and does everything.”
“Your mum is your dad’s wife,” Rana said. “When you marry Rama, ask her to do all these things and we’ll see.”
“Marriage?” Omar said, holding the fish up. “All I want is somebody to clean this fish.”
“Then clean it yourself,” Fatina said, laughing. She looked at Ali for a moment then turned to Rana. “How much cleaning can we, poor wives, be expected to do? Are we turnkey projects or what?” She smelled the baby. “I told you he’d do it big. Indeed there’s nothing we needed but to clean bottoms too.”
Fatina moved and by habit everybody moved with her. Ali noticed that Rana’s steps were hesitant at first but quickly accelerated to keep pace with Fatina. He felt worried. Not wanting to address Rana, he addressed everybody. “How could you leave a place like this and go back to the confining walls of your apartments?”
“You may remain here and give us a good description later,” Fatina said.
“At least have some tea to warm you.”
“I’ve something more effective than tea,” Fatina said. “But you need it more than we do.”
It didn’t escape Rana that by ‘you’ Fatina had meant her and Ali. “I want to go back with you,” she quickly said to Fatina.
“I wish you could, darling.” Fatina said. “But there’s no space available in the car. Ali will give you a lift.”
“There is enough space,” Ahmed said, pointing at the car.
“What do you mean?” Fatina retorted. “Do you know my car better than I do? You have Taysir and his safety seat, then you, me and Omar. We are five. One more and we will get in trouble with the traffic police.”
“I’ll put him in my lap,” Ahmed said, seeing Rana seething with resentment.
“Omar sits in nobody’s lap?”
“I meant Taysir.”
“No, I’ll sit in your lap.”
“In that case we’ll have two free seats.”
“How right you are! Where am I to rest my legs? On the window?”
Ahmed reached the end of his patience as he saw Rana on the verge of busting. “Fatina!” he whispered. “Rana wants to go back with us. You will be ruining everything if you leave her here.”
“That’s not your business,” Fatina said. “Is she your sister or what? They have accounts that they need to settle without interference. Let them do it.”
With his wife having underscored her point with a serious nod, Ahmed carried the baby, waved to Ali and Rana and walked to the car silently.
“Don’t be late, you two!” Fatina said, addressing Ali. Wondering if her decision was the right one, she added, “And don’t eat out, mum has been preparing food for the past two days.”
Ali drew close to Fatina. “Ahmed is right,” he said. “Let’s leave it for some other time. Take her with you.”
“No, now or never.”
“I need to have a bath. The squid has given me an awful smell.”
“Don’t stand too close to her.”
“My shirt is wet. I’ll catch cold.”
“Do you ever catch cold? If you feel cold, however, you could borrow a jacket from Abu Murad.”
Frustrated, Ali pulled at his shirt, “Fatina! I’m so stressed I could explode. Let’s leave it for some other time.”
“No!” she said, nervously. “If you want to explode, do it in her face. Why do you always have to explode in my face?”
“You already know why.”
“I do. But she too has suffered, alone and in hell. There was a reason for this suffering but it’s no longer useful, is it? If you two still have something for each other, say it gently; otherwise, make sure that indeed nothing has remained between you and bring her back to us.”
“He almost killed her and still she insisted on protecting him.”
“I’m aware of these details, and many other things. But it’s your business. Talk to her and listen to what she has to say. If you are not convinced, all you have to do is ask Abu Murad to get her tea on my expense and bring her back. But talk to her first.”
“You said you had heard from Rana. Were you convinced of what she said?”
“Yes! I wasn’t at first, but I got convinced later.”
“Why does she tell you but not me?”
“I’m her friend.”
“Am I nothing to her?”
“You took advantage of her weakness by taking her to your flat, but you’re not her friend. When you become a friend, she’ll tell you everything.”
Glancing at Rana who was standing at the edge of the terrace, Ali felt her distance as intentional, just like his. “She doesn’t want to stay with me,” he said, trying to deflect blame.
Fatina looked at Rana. Her eyes glittered. “Nobody would want to stay with you if you stay as you are,” she said with a heavy heart.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, remorseful. “What do you want me to do?”
“You know exactly what I want you to do, but you don’t want to do it. Why ask me? What differentiates us from the fish you catch in the sea is this heart, why don’t you ask him? The poor girl has lost half her weight in torment. Did you see her face? If there is nothing left in your heart for her, just be nice.”
His eyes reacted to Fatina’s tears but searched for their own tears. Unable to find any, they got red. “Fatina, I have done nothing wrong.”
“Neither did she.”
“So whose fault is it?”
“Why? Do you want to punish him once more?”
“I feel I have to but I can’t bring him back for another punishment. No one can. I just want to understand.”
“Then look behind you. Hold her hand, sit with her and understand. Please!”
“I don’t want to leave this terrace hating her or she hating me.”
“If you have thought of things that make you hate her, you certainly can think of other things that make you love her. Don’t give hate a chance to grow. Deal with it before it is too late.”
“I don’t have enough strength, but I’ll try,” he said, forcing his tongue, “for your sake only.”
Fatina lost her wits. She grabbed his arm. “Don’t do anything for my sake,” she said with a hissing sound. Gesturing at Rana, she added, “Or for her. If you don’t want it, don’t do it. Tell me you don’t want to and I’ll take her with me right away. You need to understand that I’m not giving her a chance. It’s you to whom I’m giving a chance.”
“Leave it for some other time, please!”
“No! You don’t know what I know,” she said, sobbing. “Reject her now and she will reject you all the time. She will have regrets but your regrets will be graver. With you or without you, she’ll still have people to love her. Even if I see her setting the whole world ablaze, I’ll continue to love her because I know what she is made of. I know you too, but I look at you and I hardly know you. I look at your heart but can’t recognise who is now residing in there.”
“It’s not possible that you should put all the blame on me.”
“It is! You’re tormenting yourself for no reason and doing the same to her. If you want to torment yourself, fine, you can do it. But I shan’t allow you to torment Rana. Do you know why? Because she wouldn’t torment anyone for whatever reason. You were like her once but I’m not sure about that anymore.”
She took a step back then advanced, shaking of anger and emotion. “If you’re unable to love Rana, you are unable to love any other girl because you can’t find a girl who loves you like she does. You don’t realise it now because your heart is closed. When you do realise it someday, she won’t be waiting for you. The list of her suitors is as long as your arm. There are at least ten suitors on her mother’s side. You don’t seem to want to convince Rana, but are you aware that we aren’t sure if we’ll be able to convince her mum?”
He was too involved with how he felt towards Rana herself. Her mum can wait. “I want to know if I’m able to forget what she has done. I need time,” he said.
Fatina suddenly felt depressed. “Supposing she has actually done it, it no longer matters. Ali, she has come back to you! That’s the only thing that matters.” She glanced at Rana. “She has come back and she is waiting for you to go back to her. Forgive her.”
“I want to forget first.”
“Forgiving is forgetting. Forgive her and you will forget fast. Let her help you forget. When you let her prove her love for you, she will remind you of your love for her and you’ll remember quickly. Then and only then you’ll be able to hold hands and run into the world, proud of your love.” Sweeping her surroundings with open hands, she added, “What else is there for us humans?”
She expected him to say something but he looked at barriers that stood between him and Rana. Convinced of their existence, he walked away. Fatina sensed it. “Suit yourself,” she said, shaking the responsibility out of her hands. “I’ve said everything that I wanted to say about you and her. Now I want to say something about me. I’ve never been aware that you have placed a stone where your heart should be. What am I to do now but go into my heart and pluck out the illusion that you had ever loved me?”
“Never doubt that,” he said, turning back to her.
“Prove it,” she said as she lifted his arm and threw it in the direction of Rana. “The other Fatina is standing over there. Go tell her that you love her.”
She walked rapidly towards her parked car.
She opened the door but immediately slammed it shut and tossed the keys on her husband’s lap. “You drive,” she said as she opened the back door, crying, “I can’t see anything in front of me.”