translated by Charis Bredin
London. Four in the morning. It was cold but rainless. A typical winter’s night. Darkness had crept into every corner and the pale light of the streetlamps did little to dispel it. Everything was still, frozen in a deep coma. At this inhuman hour, all activity had ceased. Shops and restaurants had shut their doors, and even the swift, tireless motion of buses and trains had ground to a halt. In the deserted aftermath, the streets appeared longer and wider than usual. London was a city of ghosts.
Near Paddington Station – Praed Street to be exact – a single solitary figure was visible through the gloom, Ghassan al-Muntahi was draped in a long, black, woollen coat. His white shirt was open at the collar but he seemed not to notice the bitter cold biting at his face and chest. Only his lips – cracked, blue and numb from whisky – were starting to bother him. Black Label was his preferred poison and he had had his fill of it that evening.
Ghassan had lost much of the strength and vigour of his youth. His former energy had been worn down by the years and he now trudged unhurriedly along, a sad contrast to days gone by when he’d stepped proudly forward like an army on the march.
He was heading silently home to his small flat, tucked away on the top floor of a tall block. The flat was not actually his but had been provided by Social Services, through the Peabody Trust. Every week, Ghassan paid a small amount towards the rent, and the government provided the rest.
At that moment, Ghassan’s head was filled with verse, for like the rest of the Forties generation he was something of an amateur poet. As usual, there was no one to hear his work, and so he diligently memorised every word and image lingering in his head, ready to scribble them down later in his special notebook. Eventually, he would record them onto a cassette tape – just in case he happened to meet a fellow poet one day, and wanted to display the rich words and dark sorrows conjured up by his ‘genius’, as he liked to call it.
Having already covered a considerable distance in his night-time wanderings, Ghassan was now minutes from the flat. He had set out from Westminster, the illustrious and refined end of town, the dreaming towers where laws and policies are first conceived. It was altogether different to where he lived. Paddington was a noisy, bustling muddle of restaurants and cheap bars.
“How many adventures this flat has witnessed!” he murmured, drawing closer to his destination, “How many secrets it’s kept from prying eyes! How many dark deeds it’s concealed between its trusty walls!
“But perhaps it’s not the building that’s protected me. Perhaps it’s the city.” No sooner had Ghassan considered this intriguing thought than it occupied his entire mind, demanding immediate reflection. He resolved to find a response before he reached home, and if one were not forthcoming he would remain outside the flat, on the pavement, for as long as necessary. On closer reflection, however, he realised that the question was rather straightforward. It was clearly London that had kept his secrets. It was London where unquestioned social codes prevented people from poking their noses into other people’s business. It was London where the individual’s freedom was respected, and his secrets kept, so long as he respected the freedom and secrets of others.
This realisation immediately led to another train of thought, transporting Ghassan back to memories of misfortunes that had befallen his acquaintances in other, less permissive, parts of the world. Foremost among them was his Omani friend, Nasser. Some years ago, Nasser had become besotted with an older woman. The couple’s love for one another grew so intense and all-consuming that they couldn’t bear to be parted. Soon, they decided to live together in Nasser’s house, and forever banish the pain of absence.
At first, no one seemed to notice their arrangement, but then, several days later, tongues began to wag. The neighbourhood women were curious to know who the lady was and soon a whirlwind of hypotheses was raging, with each lady having her own take on the situation.
Gradually, this state of bewildered intrigue intensified. It was, above all, the woman’s advanced age that had outraged people so.
“What can that woman possibly be up to in the house of a young bachelor like him?” they whispered to one another. The couple paid no heed to the gossip and inquisitive glances directed their way. Then the Muezzin, one of the neighbourhood’s more prominent members, decided to wade in, bent on ascertaining the nature of the couple’s relationship and, more importantly, whether their cohabitation could be considered legitimate when the young man remained a bachelor. He strongly suspected that there was some dark business afoot.
Tales of the woman spread like wildfire. She was the talk of every social gathering, particularly the women’s coffee hour, which was not merely dedicated to consumption of dates and coffee, but rather, crucially, was an opportunity to have a gossip. Indeed, the women had no qualms about delving into the sordid secrets of people’s lives, even when such matters did not concern them in the slightest.
Eventually, the Muezzin decided to raise the issue to the judge, feeling it incumbent upon him as a responsible and senior member of the community with personal ties to the mosque. He requested that the judge investigate Nasser’s story and establish how this woman – Salamah – came to be in his flat. Why was she living with a man who was not her husband? She must be cautioned. She must be reminded that the customs of their country did not permit her to live with this man. The judge had no option but to call Nasser and Salamah before him and demand that they explain themselves.
In response to the judge’s interrogation, Nasser simply stated that Salamah was renting a room from him. As he was struggling financially, he’d seen nothing against it. Thus, their relationship was no more than that of landlord and tenant.
On hearing this, the judge deemed the matter closed and cleared them of all charges. But the Muezzin, still not satisfied, raised the case to a higher court.
Ghassan let out a short laugh, replaying the story in his mind.
“That kind of thing would never make it before a judge in London,” he mused, shaking his head, “for starters, there’re no Muezzins. The neighbours wouldn’t bat an eyelid either. Ever since I came here in 1970, no one’s ever tried to stick their nose into my business. My secrets have stayed firmly nestled between these four walls, completely safe from scrutiny. I’ve been left entirely to my own devices, without even making an effort.”
Ghassan’s many shameful misdeeds had, as yet, gone undetected. He’d carried out all sorts of sham deals and petty thefts, bullied his elderly wife constantly and told an endless string of fibs, luring gullible women into his trap then taking off with everything they owned. For the past thirty years, he’d led a double life, split between an acceptable public façade and a secret inner world. His wife Clara had some idea of his duplicitous existence, but only after years of marriage.
“I would never have got away with it back home, with all those suffocating traditions,” Ghassan sighed, “I’d have been uncovered sooner or later. Perhaps I could’ve kept up pretences for a little, but soon I’d be at the centre of some scandal or other. A social outcast with nowhere to go. All my thefts and scams would’ve been found out. But secrets are secrets in London. Unless you’re one of the Rolling Stones. Or Rod Stewart. Or Princess Di. Or that writer Fay Weldon. Or Joan Collins, for that matter. When it comes to their like, there’s no such thing as a private life. There are people who are experts in digging up their own dirt.
“In London it’s been a breeze. I’ve become a whole new me: a handsome, comely gentleman, with fine leather shoes, a sharp suit, gold wristwatch, and bulging wallet.
“No one knows the bitter reality behind all that: a life filled with every kind of failure. I’m a dropout. Bunked school, abandoned university, and never held down a job. I let things slip and ended up in a deep pit of vice that I’ve never managed to escape.
“Every morning, when I go to wash my face after a long night of drunken lies and debauchery, I peer into the mirror and all I see is bitter failure etched across my features.
“But no one’s ever found me out, even as I walk towards the police car at the bottom of my building. Maybe if somebody had, I would’ve regained my senses. Perhaps the very fact that my other side has remained concealed for so long has reinforced it, pushing me further down this path. London’s brought out a whole new side in me. I’m on benefits and I’ve no right to be. I’ve surrounded myself with a wall of lies that could quite easily come crumbling down, exposing my sordid life for all to see. Suddenly they’d all know I’m not Issam al-Kabir but Ghassan al-Muntahi, an uncouth, penniless, two-faced fraud, with a fake degree to boot.”
As he continued down the street, his head buzzing with these thoughts, he suddenly realised that he’d already spent his entire weekly allowance and had not a penny to his name. At the same time, his thoughts drifted to his most recent girlfriend who knew nothing of his secret life, and, above all, the fact that he had an old wife called Clara and lived with her in a poky little flat.
Whenever his girlfriend raised the subject of marriage, Ghassan would prevaricate, hinting at the idea but never going further. He was a married man, after all, and could not possibly take another wife! At this, he was comforted by the fact that, in spite of the general messiness of his life, he did possess some commendable traits. He’d produced some decent poetry, after all, and dabbled in journalism many years ago. In fact, his passport even gave it as his profession.
Having left Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament far behind him, his building was now visible, shrouded in darkness, its large windows overlooking a dingy alleyway where mice and foxes were at play with alley cats and stray dogs. His head was still ringing with half-thoughts. He recalled the day he’d left home under a cloud of shame, his name linked to all manner of crimes, shunned by both his family and countrymen.
London had seemed the best place for developing his new persona. No one would ever know about his shameful past, and his family would never discover his new home, or the vice-ridden, lawless life he lived there, many miles away. Thus, he’d lost all contact with his former life, dropping friends and family alike. For all they knew, he could be long dead.
He’d come to London and lost himself amidst its thronging masses, living a covert existence, just like the millions of other wretched beings who’d sought refuge in the sprawling metropolis. Lost in thought, Ghassan had now failed to realise that he was metres from the flat. Before he reached the door, however, a new poem popped into his head, celebrating the passionately quarrelsome night he’d spent with his girlfriend until the wee hours of the morning. Her name was Kadi and she was very short, a trait he found particularly alluring. Ghassan always went for unattractive women, fat enough to inspire only pity and disgust. This was not a random predilection, but a deliberate choice. In his eyes, it was a very wise policy, allowing him to lessen his own sense of shortcomings.
Ghssan never fell in love with women either. Despite his passion for music and poetry, he simply didn’t believe in romance. When it came to the opposite sex, all he knew was how to bully and domineer. In his view, women must be entirely submissive, with no voice or opinions of their own.
Instinctively, he’d realised that any woman with the slightest degree of beauty or intelligence would never accept him. Beauty, intelligence and independence would all inevitably become weapons levelled against him.
Reviewing the past evening with Kadi, he mused over how she and her friends always paid special attention to him when he was the only male present, amidst a crowd of ten or so women. Nights like that always filled him with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing.
Such soirées were usually devoted to him telling the girls weird and wonderful stories, in which he always starred as the courageous hero. In his latest tale, he’d described how he’d rescued a group of girls from the police, just as they were about to be handed over to immigration. Thanks to his close acquaintance with the Secretary of State for Immigration and Passports, he’d secured their release. Several members of the audience were rather sceptical of Ghassan’s tale but did not press the matter, for fear of wounding his pride. They let him weave his fabulous stories and flaunt his exceptional and multifaceted talents, an activity that provided him with great psychological support, allowing him to gloss over the insecurities and anxieties that constantly hounded him.
Finally, he reached the small red door to his flat and inserted his key into the lock. He hesitated for a second on the threshold, uncertain whether to head for the bedroom on his right, or the sitting room on his left.
After a brief moment of indecision, he went for the bedroom where his sleeping wife lay in an exhausted heap on the rusty iron bed.
“Worn out after a stressful day at work,” Ghassan muttered, gazing down at her, “and when she gets home, I just make everything worse by picking fights. I’m such a perverse guy,” he shook his head, still observing Clara, deeply asleep and entirely unaware of the thoughts going through her husband’s head. “Shall I jump in bed and have a go at her? She’s my lawful wife, after all. My lawful wife, whom I’ve submitted to so many humiliations over the years. Look at her! Completely defeated! She’s relinquished her whole being to me. All that’s left is the shell of a woman, nervous and submissive, her back bent by the years and aspiring to no more than her miserable existence with me. Even if she wanted, she couldn’t change it.
“I’ve a desperate urge to yell in her ear and wake her up. It’s her to duty to wake up because I’m her husband. What a wretched woman she is: an old wretched woman who had the bad luck to cross paths with me. If Clara had any strength of character I wouldn’t have lasted a day. I only ever pick weak women. That’s why I’ve ended up with an ugly, old wife and an equally ugly girlfriend. And no matter what mischief I get up to, Clara will never leave me.”
As these thoughts continued to swirl through Ghassan’s head, his eyes wandered over the small, tidy bedroom, dimly visible through the darkness. He still hadn’t decided whether to launch himself on Clara or turn the light on so she’d be startled into wakefulness, ready to brew him a cup of coffee that would hopefully settle his drunken mind.
Then another thought occurred to him: he could return to the sitting room and neglect Clara completely. This was his usual course of action for he found that the more he neglected her, the more devoted Clara grew, striving to please him in every possible way, desperate for the slightest gesture of affection and terrified by the thought of him leaving her. The worse he treated her, the tighter she clung. Ghassan thus withheld all tenderness and grew ever more intent on demeaning her, making absolutely certain she stayed with him. Without such precautions she’d certainly have rebelled by now, abandoning him when he needed her most. He couldn’t live in London without her. He was certain of that fact and dreaded the day when she finally kicked him out. Where would he go? What would he do?
He couldn’t bear the thought of losing her and in his view this was a perfect reason for abusing and harassing her. Constant humiliation was necessary to ensure that his word remained law. He simply had no choice.
For now, Clara remained firmly under his thumb. When they sat together in the living room, Ghassan would take the sofa, his long legs resting on Clara’s lap as she perched on a small, battered blue chair, literally cowering beneath his boots. It was Ghassan who then chose the channel on the rickety TV set, loaned from Radio Rentals for five quid a month. Clara paid the fee out of her wage but it was he who dictated what they watched, never once consulting her. It was as though he were alone in the room, while she sat in stupefied silence, mesmerised by the images flashing across the screen and never thinking to challenge his assumed monopoly.
During their evenings in, Ghassan would always receive an incessant string of phone calls and Clara knew it must be “that short girl”, with fat lips and big breasts. Ghassan had met Kadi two years ago and they continued to date. Clara knew that Kadi had no idea about her and the fact that she had been living with Ghassan for so long. Ghassan continued to hint at a proposal, with the result that Kadi called him ceaselessly, day and night. Clara would listen to their flirtatious conversations, her insides burning, her heart pounding and her nerves jangling. She never said a word though. She let Ghassan continue to his heart’s content, hoping only that, one day, a small portion of his affectionate flirtation might be reserved for her. This longed-for attention was not forthcoming, however, so she reluctantly continued to battle her anxieties and jealousy, accepting everything that came her way. Inside, she was filled with hurt and a crippling fear that, if ever she contradicted him, Ghassan would leave her and fall forever into Kadi’s clutches.
There was no doubt that Ghassan’s relationship with Kadi had its benefits too. Each week, he spent a quarter of the girl’s wages on cigarettes, coffee and wine, considerably reducing the hefty expenses that had previously been lumped on Clara alone. Ghassan’s contribution to the household mainly consisted in doing their weekly shopping.
As drunken thoughts cascaded through his intoxicated brain, Ghassan still had not decided whether to launch an attack on the sleeping Clara. Perhaps he should leave her until the morning when she would begin hunting for him, as she did every day when she awoke to find him absent from her side. She would storm angrily through the flat, peering into every corner as the image of Kadi danced before her eyes. Then she would start screeching at the top of her voice, heedless of the neighbours and the disturbance she might be causing them so early in the morning. She shrieked mindlessly, entirely absorbed in the sound of his name: “Ghassan . . . Ghassan . . . Where are you, you bastard? Where’ve you got to? Where were you last night? Were you with her, that empty-headed bitch? Tell me! Were you in her arms? What does that hussy give you that I don’t? Don’t you get enough love and affection at home? Why do you insist on betraying our love? Or is it just sex? Is that why you like her so much? Don’t you get enough of that here? Aren’t I up for it day and night? I’m prettier than her as well!” Here, she would pause for breath, gesturing towards her face: “Just look at my plump cheeks, glowing skin and bright eyes. She doesn’t have any of that . . .” Trailing off, she would then begin to weep.
When she eventually located him, her anger would subside and she’d slump onto her chair. A few moments later, it would dawn on her that she’d just woken up and hadn’t yet washed the stale smell of sleep and cigarettes from her mouth. Nor had she put her false teeth in. She was a mess, without a speck of mascara around her tired eyes. Overcome with embarrassment, she’d hurry to the bathroom to sort herself out. It was of paramount importance to her that Ghassan saw her as a dreamy, fresh-faced girl, although, deep down, she knew she’d only ever be an old crone in his eyes.
Over the years, Ghassan had developed certain methods of forestalling her habitual morning tantrums. He would, for example, remain seated in the sitting-room, pretending to have been home all night, reading poetry, sipping wine and watching TV until morning. He would act cool, despite the fact he was quaking inside, and eventually emerge the victor. What terrified Ghassan the most was the fact that Clara was a woman with rights. Although not English, her residence in the country guaranteed her all the same protections as British women.
There was nothing to be done about these British laws and they were a source of constant anxiety and annoyance to Ghassan. He knew that if he went too far, bullying and tormenting Clara with his affairs, she might eventually go to the authorities. Then he’d be kicked out and end up on the streets. That was to be avoided at all costs.
Their flat was the one thing that was actually his, apart from a carton of cigarettes and some clothes. There were also a couple of gold bracelets and some electrical devices – all stolen – but they were going to be pawned at one of the local shops to pay off his debts.
Sitting quietly in the living room, he surveyed the furniture he’d never paid for. Some of it had been given by former lovers and some of it was stolen. A clutter of random objects filled the rest of the space: clothes, abandoned papers, cassette tapes, cheap nick-knacks, mementoes and knockoffs of Constable, da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt, bought from sellers in Hyde Park.
Ghassan remained where he was, waiting for Clara to enter and thinking bitterly of the laws that gave her so much power over him. He inwardly cursed Britain and its modern legal system that granted women so much more than they ever granted him in the way of social, financial and intellectual support. In his view, their rights should be immediately revoked and given to men instead.
Back home, women couldn’t even travel without the prior consent of their husbands or guardians. In his opinion, this law protected both the family and the society as a whole. It had nothing to do with disempowering women, as was the general consensus in Europe. British law simply stripped men of their rights in the name of protecting women. The discrepancies in the legal system made his head spin. He simply couldn’t make head or tail of them.
During all this, Clara was in the bathroom, attending to her morning cleansing ritual. As she did so, a question popped into her head: “Where was Ghassan all last night?”
No sooner had this question occurred to her than she barged through the bathroom door with a face like thunder, stomping over to him with a shoe in one hand. She immediately began to beat him viciously over the head and chest as he howled with rage, trying to escape the blows raining mercilessly down on him. She was humiliating him, emasculating him with every pound.
“Darling! Please stop! I never left the flat yesterday, you’ve got to believe me!” he pleaded, and she finally relented. “I’ve been on the sofa all this time, watching telly, writing poetry and finishing the wine I brought back from the restaurant. That’s the truth! I did talk to Kadi but only for a little, and only to convince her not to call me anymore because I can’t marry her. I made the situation quite clear to her. I promise!
“I told her I’m going to leave London for good and she can’t stay on her own any more. But let’s be honest, Clara,” he continued, alerting his wife to an important point she seemed to have overlooked. “It’s in neither of our interests to force Kadi from our lives. She provides us with valuable financial support, as you well know.”
Clara’s eyes widened at the words “financial support” for this had indeed slipped her mind as she raged against him. She really didn’t want to lose the extra income and go back to bearing the full brunt of Ghassan’s expenditure.
Some time ago, the couple had reached an agreement, with Clara consenting to her husband’s affairs so long as they remained casual, and brought some kind of material benefits.
At the time, Clara had agreed reluctantly, and, as she feared, the moment had indeed marked the beginning of a long string of infidelities, eventually becoming one of the mainstays of their marriage. Ghassan’s liaisons were now a given that could not be questioned, so long as Clara wished to remain his wife.
First published in English in Banipl Magazine, n0 51, Autumn-Wnter 2014