V, p.10

V., page 10

 

V.
 



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  Enough, enough. Best get this over, he decided, and to bed as soon as possible. One of these days he’d climb up on that pyramid so exhausted, reflexes off enough, that the neck-breaking routine would be no sham. Girgis shivered in the same wind that cooled the acacias. Up, he told his body: up. That window.

  And was halfway erect before he saw his competition. Another comic acrobat, climbing out a window some ten feet above the bushes Girgis crouched in.

  Patience, then. Study his technique. We can always learn. The other’s face, turned in profile, seemed wrong: but it was only the streetlight. Feet now on a narrow ledge, the man began to inch along crablike, toward the corner of the building. After a few steps, stopped; began to pick at his face. Something white fluttered down, tissue-thin, into the bushes.

  Skin? Girgis shivered again. He had a way of repressing thoughts of disease.

  Apparently the ledge narrowed toward the corner. The thief was hugging the wall closer. He reached the corner. As he stood with each foot on a different side and the edge of the building bisecting him from eyebrows to abdomen he lost his balance and fell. On the way down he yelled out an obscenity in English. Then hit the shrubbery with a crash, rolled and lay still for a while. A match flared and went out, leaving only the pulsing coal of a cigarette.

  Girgis was all sympathy. He could see it happening to himself one day, in front of the children, old and young. If he’d believed in signs he would have given it up for tonight and gone back to the tent they all shared near the slaughterhouse. But how could he stay alive on the few millièmes tossed his way during the day? “Mountebank is a dying profession,” he’d reckon in his lighter moments. “All the good ones have moved into politics.”

  The Englishman put out his cigarette, rose and began to climb a tree nearby. Girgis lay muttering old curses. He could hear the Englishman wheezing and talking to himself as he ascended, crawled out on a limb, straddled it and peered in a window.

  After a lag of fifteen seconds, Girgis distinctly heard the words, “A bit thick, you know,” from the tree. Another cigarette-coal appeared, then abruptly swung in a quick arc downward and hung a few feet below the limb. The Englishman was swinging by one arm from the limb.

  This is ridiculous, Girgis thought.

  Crash. The Englishman fell into the bushes again. Girgis got cautiously to his feet and went over to him.

  “Bongo-Shaftsbury?” the Englishman said, hearing Girgis approach. He lay looking up at a starless zenith, picking absently at flakes of dead skin on his face. Girgis stopped a few feet away. “Not yet,” the other continued, “you haven’t got me quite yet. They are up there, on my bed, Goodfellow and the girl. We’ve been together now for two years, and I can’t begin, you know, to count all the girls he’s done this to. As if every capital of Europe were Margate, and the promenade a continent long.” He began to sing.

  It isn’t the girl I saw you wiv in Brighton,

  Who, who, who’s your lady friend?

  Mad, thought Girgis, pitying. The sun hadn’t stopped with this poor fellow’s face, it had gone on into the brain.

  “She will be in ‘love’ with him, whatever the word means. He will leave her. Do you think I care? One accepts his partner as one does any tool, with all its idiosyncrasies. I had read Goodfellow’s dossier, I knew what I was getting. . . .

  “But perhaps the sun, and what is happening down the Nile, and the knife-switch on your arm, which I did not expect; and the frightened child, and now—” he gestured up at the window he’d left—“have thrown me off. We all have a threshold. Put your revolver away, Bongo-Shaftsbury—there’s a good fellow—and wait, only wait. She is still faceless, still expendable. God, who knows how many of us will have to be sacrificed this coming week? She is the least of my worries. She and Goodfellow.”

  What comfort could Girgis give him? His English wasn’t good, he’d only understood half the words. The madman had not moved, had only continued to stare at the sky. Girgis opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and began to back away. He realized all at once how tired he was, how much the days of acrobatics took out of him. Would that alienated figure on the ground be Girgis someday?

  I’m getting old, Girgis thought. I have seen my own ghost. But I’ll have a look at the Hotel du Nil anyway. The tourists there aren’t as rich. But we all do what we can.

  VII

  The bierhalle north of the Ezbekiyeh Garden had been created by north European tourists in their own image. One memory of home among the dark-skinned and tropical. But so German as to be ultimately a parody of home.

  Hanne had held on to the job only because she was stout and blond. A smaller brunette from the south had stayed for a time but was finally let go because she didn’t look German enough. A Bavarian peasant but not German enough! The whims of Boeblich the owner got only amusement from Hanne. Bred to patience—a barmaid since age thirteen—she had cultivated and perfected a vast cowlike calm which served her now in good stead among the drunkenness, sex for sale and general fatuousness of the bierhalle.

  To the bovine of this world—this tourist world, at least—love comes, is undergone, and goes away unobtrusive as possible. So with Hanne and the itinerant Lepsius; a salesman—said he—of ladies’ jewelry. Who was she to question? Having been through it (her phrase), Hanne, schooled in the ways of an unsentimental world, knew well enough that men were obsessed with politics almost as much as women with marriage. Knew the bierhalle to be more than a place only to get drunk or fixed up with a woman, just as its list of frequent customers did comprise individuals strange to Karl Baedeker’s way of life.

  How upset Boeblich would be could he see her lover. Hanne mooned about the kitchen now, in the slack period between dinner and serious drinking, up to her elbows in soapy water. Lepsius was certainly “not German enough.” Half a head shorter than Hanne, eyes so delicate that he must wear tinted glasses even in the murk of Boeblich’s, and such poor thin arms and legs.

  “There is a competitor in town,” he confided to her, “pushing an inferior line, underselling us—it’s unethical, don’t you see?” She’d nodded.

  Well if he came in . . . anything she happened to overhear . . . a rotten business, nothing he’d ever want to subject a woman to . . . but. . . .

  For his poor weak eyes, his loud snoring, his boylike way of mounting her, taking too long to come to rest in the embrace of her fat legs . . . of course, she would go on watch for any “competitor.” English he was, and somewhere had got a bad touch of the sun.

  All day, through the slower morning hours, her hearing seemed to grow sharper. So that at noon when the kitchen erupted gently into disorder—nothing outright: a few delayed orders, a dropped plate which shattered like her tender eardrums—she’d heard perhaps more than she was intended to. Fashoda, Fashoda . . . the word washed about Boeblich’s like a pestilent rain. Even the faces changed: Grüne the chef, Wernher the bartender, Musa the boy who swept floors, Lotte and Eva and the other girls, all seemed to’ve turned shifty, to’ve been hiding secrets all this time. There was even something sinister about the usual slap on the buttocks Boeblich gave Hanne as she passed by.

  Imagination, she told herself. She’d always been a practical girl, not given to fancy. Could this be one of love’s side-effects? To bring on visions, encourage voices which did not exist, to make the chewing and second digestion of any cud only more difficult? It worried Hanne, who thought she knew everything about love. How was Lepsius different: a little slower, a little weaker; certainly no high priest at the business, no more mysterious or remarkable than any other of a dozen strangers.

  Damn men and their politics. Perhaps it was a kind of sex for them. Didn’t they even use the same word for what a man does to a woman and what a successful politician does to his unlucky opponent? What was Fashoda to her, or Marchand or Kitchener, or whatever their names were, the two who had “met”
—met for what? Hanne laughed, shaking her head. She could imagine, for what.

  She pushed back a straggle of yellow hair with one soap-bleached hand. Odd how the skin died and grew soggy-white. It looked like leprosy. Since midday a certain leitmotif of disease had come jittering in, had half-revealed itself, latent in the music of Cairo’s afternoon; Fashoda, Fashoda, a word to give pale, unspecific headaches, a word suggestive of jungle, and outlandish micro-organisms, and fevers which were not love’s (the only she’d known, after all, being a healthy girl) or anything human’s. Was it a change in the light, or were the skins of the others actually beginning to show the blotches of disease?

  She rinsed and stacked the last plate. No. A stain. Back went the plate into the dishwater. Hanne scrubbed, then examined the plate again, tilting it toward the light. The stain was still there. Hardly visible. Roughly triangular, it extended from an apex near the center to a base an inch or so from the edge. A sort of brown color, outlines indistinct against the faded white of the plate’s surface. She tilted the plate another few degrees toward the light and the stain disappeared. Puzzled, she moved her head to look at it from another angle. The stain flickered twice in and out of existence. Hanne found that if she focused her eyes a little behind and off the edge of the plate the stain would remain fairly constant, though its shape had begun to change outline; now crescent, now trapezoid. Annoyed, she plunged the plate back into the water and searched among the kitchen gear under the sink for a stiffer brush.

  Was the stain real? She didn’t like its color. The color of her headache: pallid brown. It is a stain, she told herself. That’s all it is. She scrubbed fiercely. Outside, the beer-drinkers were coming in from the street. “Hanne,” called Boeblich.

  O God, would it never go away? She gave it up at last and stacked the plate with the other dishes. But now it seemed the stain had fissioned, and transferred like an overlay to each of her retinae.

  A quick look at her hair in the mirror-fragment over the sink; then on went a smile and out went Hanne to wait on her countrymen.

  Of course the first face she saw was that of the “competitor.” It sickened her. Mottled red and white, and loose wisps of skin hanging . . . He was conferring anxiously with Varkumian the pimp, whom she knew. She began to make passes.

  “. . . Lord Cromer could keep it from avalanching . . .”

  “. . . Sir, every whore and assassin in Cairo . . .”

  In the corner someone vomited. Hanne rushed to clean it up.

  “. . . if they should assassinate Cromer . . .”

  “. . . bad show, to have no Consul-General . . .”

  “. . . it will degenerate . . .”

  Amorous embrace from a customer. Boeblich approached with a friendly scowl.

  “. . . keep him safe at all costs . . .”

  “. . . capable men in this sick world are at a . . .”

  “. . . Bongo-Shaftsbury will try . . .”

  “. . . the Opera . . .”

  “. . . where? Not the Opera . . .”

  “. . . Ezbekiyeh Garden . . .”

  “. . . the Opera . . . Manon Lescaut . . .”

  “. . . who did say? I know her . . . Zenobia the Copt . . .”

  “. . . Kenneth Slime at the Embassy’s girl . . .”

  Love. She paid attention.

  “. . . has it from Slime that Cromer is taking no precautions. My God: Goodfellow and I barged in this morning as Irish tourists: he in a moldy morning hat with a shamrock, I in a red beard. They threw us bodily into the street. . . .”

  “. . . no precautions . . . O God . . .”

  “. . . God, with a shamrock . . . Goodfellow wanted to lob a bomb . . .”

  “. . . as if nothing could wake him up . . . doesn’t he read the . . .”

  A long wait by the bar while Wernher and Musa tapped a new keg. The triangular stain swam somewhere over the crowd, like a tongue on Pentecost.

  “. . . now that they have met . . .”

  “. . . they will stay, I imagine, round . . .”

  “. . . the jungles round . . .”

  “. . . will there be, do you think . . .”

  “. . . if it begins it will be round . . .”

  Where?

  “Fashoda.”

  “Fashoda.”

  Hanne continued on her way, through the establishment’s doors and into the street. Grüne the waiter found her ten minutes later leaning back against a shop front, gazing on the night-garden with mild eyes.

  “Come.”

  “What is Fashoda, Grüne?”

  Shrug. “A place. Like Munich, Weimar, Kiel. A town, but in the jungle.”

  “What does it have to do with women’s jewelry?”

  “Come in. The girls and I can’t handle that herd.”

  “I see something. Do you? Floating over the park.” From across the canal came the whistle of the night express for Alexandria.

  “Bitte . . .” Some common nostalgia—for the cities of home; for the train or only its whistle?—may have held them for a moment. Then the girl shrugged and they returned to the bierhalle.

  Varkumian had been replaced by a young girl in a flowered dress. The leprous Englishman seemed upset. With ruminant resourcefulness Hanne rolled eyes, thrust bosoms at a middle-aged bank clerk seated with cronies at the table next to the couple. Received and accepted an invitation to join them.

  “I followed you,” the girl said. “Papa would die if he found out.” Hanne could see her face, half in shadow. “About Mr. Goodfellow.”

  Pause. Then: “Your father was in a German church this afternoon. As we are now in a German beer hall. Sir Alastair was listening to someone play Bach. As if Bach were all that were left.” Another pause. “So that he may know.”

  She hung her head, a mustache of beer foam on her upper lip. There came one of those queer lulls in the noise level of any room; in its center another whistle from the Alexandria express.

  “You love Goodfellow,” he said.

  “Yes.” Nearly a whisper.

  “Whatever I may think,” she said, “I have guessed. You can’t believe me, but I must say it. It’s true.”

  “What would you have me do, then?”

  Twisting ringlets round her fingers: “Nothing. Only understand.”

  “How can you—” exasperated—“men can get killed, don’t you see, for ‘understanding’ someone. The way you want it. Is your whole family daft? Will they be content with nothing less than the heart, lights and liver?”

  It was not love. Hanne excused herself and left. It was not man/woman. The stain was still with her. What could she tell Lepsius tonight. She had only the desire to remove his spectacles, snap and crush them, and watch him suffer. How delightful it would be.

  This from gentle Hanne Echerze. Had the world gone mad with Fashoda?

  VIII

  The corridor runs by the curtained entrances to four boxes, located to audience right at the top level of the summer theatre in the Ezbekiyeh Garden.

  A man wearing blue spectacles hurries into the second box from the stage end of the corridor. The red curtains, heavy velvet, swing to and fro, unsynchronized, after his passage. The oscillation soon damps out because of the weight. They hang still. Ten minutes pass.

  Two men turn the corner by the allegorical statue of Tragedy. Their feet crush unicorns and peacocks that repeat diamond-fashion the entire length of the carpet. The face of one is hardly to be distinguished beneath masses of white tissue which have obscured the features, and changed slightly the outlines of the face. The other is fat. They enter the box next to the one the man with the blue spectacles is in. Light from outside, late summer light now falls through a single window, turning the statue and the figured carpet to a monochrome orange. Shadows become more opaque.
The air between seems to thicken with an indeterminate color, though it is probably orange. Then a girl in a flowered dress comes down the hall and enters the box occupied by the two men. Minutes later she emerges, tears in her eyes and on her face. The fat man follows. They pass out of the field of vision.

  The silence is total. So there’s no warning when the red-and-white-faced man comes through his curtains holding a drawn pistol. The pistol smokes. He enters the next box. Soon he and the man with the blue spectacles, struggling, pitch through the curtains and fall to the carpet. Their lower halves are still hidden by the curtains. The man with the white-blotched face removes the blue spectacles; snaps them in two and drops them to the floor. The other shuts his eyes tightly, tries to turn his head away from the light.

  Another has been standing at the end of the corridor. From this vantage he appears only as a shadow; the window is behind him. The man who removed the spectacles now crouches, forcing the prostrate one’s head toward the light. The man at the end of the corridor makes a small gesture with his right hand. The crouching man looks that way and half rises. A flame appears in the area of the other’s right hand; another flame; another. The flames are colored a brighter orange than the sun.

  Vision must be the last to go. There must also be a nearly imperceptible line between an eye that reflects and an eye that receives.

  The half-crouched body collapses. The face and its masses of white skin loom ever closer. At rest the body is assumed exactly into the space of this vantage.

  chapter four

  In which Esther

  gets a nose

  job

  V

  Next evening, prim and nervous-thighed in a rear seat of the crosstown bus, Esther divided her attention between the delinquent wilderness outside and a paperback copy of The Search for Bridey Murphy. This book had been written by a Colorado businessman to tell people there was life after death. In its course he touched upon metempsychosis, faith healing, extrasensory perception and the rest of a weird canon of twentieth-century metaphysics we’ve come now to associate with the city of Los Angeles and similar regions.

 

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