Two stories about sleep from Mohamed Kheir’s brilliant short story collection رمش العين (Kotob Khan, 2014) [Eyelash]. Kheir is perhaps best known as a poet, with three poetry collections published by Merit ليل خارجي (Outer Night, 2002), بارانويا (Paranoia, 2008) and هدايا الوحدة (The Gifts of Loneliness, 2010), with a fourth, excellent collection released this year by Kotob Khan, العادات السيئة للماضي (The Bad Habits of the Past), which Muhamed Abdel Nabi has written about here. This is Mohamed’s second short story collection after عفاريت الراديو (Dar Malamih, 2008) [Radio Devils]. He has written one novel to date, the very fine سماء أقرب [Merit, 2013] (A Closer Sky). Abdel Nabi has also written about Eyelash, here, and Daily News Egypt recently published an interview with Kheir in English, which can be found here.
Suddenly he stopped. We sleep here, he said.
– In the street?
On a concrete bench he set down his bag, rested his head atop it and stretched out. I stayed standing. I looked at the sea: a mass of darkness. The pavement: empty. The cold digging insistently beneath my clothes.
– Ten minutes then you wake me up and you sleep, and I wake you, and so on.
And he laid his head back and slept.
I stood in the yellow-tinged darkness. Peered up. No stars, like a second sea. I looked back at him, the sound of his snores vying with the waves, then drowsiness clamped down on me with its full weight and my knees buckled.
I lit one of my two remaining cigarettes. I started moving about and puffing, counting in my head and growing drowsier, circling the concrete bench and checking my watch—two minutes, two and a half—shaking my wrist as if I could make the hands turn faster, and going back to gaze at the sleeper.
I’d involved him in my mission, insisted until he’d given in. We’d come from the other end of the country, and between travel and drinks the money had run out, what was left only enough for the trip back on the early morning train. So we decided to wander down to the station and sit there, but the road was long and we’d run out of puff and he’d said, We sleep here.
I’m freezing cold, but mum comes with the hot tea and I clap with joy and she laughs and I get to my feet and take it from her and I stub my toe and I’m moaning and I find myself sitting on the sidewalk and it’s still night.
I looked about then looked at my watch: twelve minutes. I pulled myself together, got up and woke him. Slowly he raised his head, sat up, then rose. I stretched out in his place.
– Ten minutes, he warned me.
I nodded my head and was gone.
The sun woke me.
For a couple of seconds I stayed there on my back, trying to take it in. I sat up. A few pedestrians about but no sign of him. I rose up, shouting, You son of a…
Then I saw his bag. It had shifted along a few centimetres. I took it and opened it. At the bottom were the remains of sandwiches he’d brought with him the morning before, a physics textbook, revision notes, blank sheets of paper and a pen, and yesterday’s paper.
I set the bag beside me. Looked at the watch, realizing with a jolt that we’d missed the cheap train. Waited. Waited.
– He never came? Heba asks.
– He never came.
I look at her. She’s sitting facing the sea and I have my back to it. She gets to her feet and holds out her hand and I pass the cup of hot chickpea and tomato broth over the cart. She sits back down. I tell her: That’s the bench we slept on.
She looks down as though she can see us. Shifts, as though giving us some room, and her thigh beneath the black trousers is a perfect circle.
– He didn’t answer his mobile? she asks me.
I look at her young face and I smile: It was twenty years ago.
She stirs the spoon in the cup. She blows. She tastes.
– I sat here till evening. I was worried that he’d come and wouldn’t find me. In the evening I called his family at home, but they asked me about him, so I put the phone down.
– And you never went back?
– I never went back.
– Lucky you.
I gaze into her playful eyes and I smile: How old are you?
A moment, then she adds: And four kids.
My jaw drops and I stare at the slender waist, the fingers…
She closes her palm and winks: I put the ring on when I go home.
Then she points to the market: And to the the shop.
Then her finger shifts to point still further off: And to my father’s place.
Then she points it at me: You run away and come to us and we’ve got no way out.
I gesture to the sea at my back.
She shakes her head regretfully. Cups her hand to her mouth as though whispering: Problem is, I don’t cry.
– What, never?
And she stares at me, eyes wide, as though emphasizing what she’s said.
I lean on the cart and watch the road. The cars had speeded up.
Two days later they came, the father, the brother and, stumbling in their wake, the mother in her robe. Came here. I saw them and backed away. I hid. They stood talking. The mother sat down on the same concrete bench and suddenly she started slapping her cheeks. The father yanked at her hand and shouted. The brother pushed them apart. They stayed there, arguing, shouting, silent, until the sun went down, then they got into an ancient taxi and left.
I look at Heba.
– I’ll be off to work.
– They aren’t your kids.
She looks at me.
– The four kids. Your brothers, right?
She is silent for a moment. Then she says: Sort of. Then, in a challenging tone: And he’s not your friend.
She points at the bench.
– He was your brother, wasn’t he?
And she aims her finger back at me: I’m not an idiot.
– Was my brother?
– Well, after seventeen years… she says, flustered.
She gets up, says softly: Who knows? Maybe he’s fine.
I incline my head, smiling, and she moves off. Then, suddenly, she stops. She turns to me and covers her hand with her mouth and her eyes open as wide as they can go.
*** *** *** *** ***
What Saeed Amer believed—not by way of abstract hypothesis, but from direct experience—was that people stayed safe, or at any rate were less likely to die, so long as they made no sudden change in their habits, such as starting, after a long period out of contact, to call people they’d grown up with and old friends, or discovering a new hobby in middle age, or suffering some sudden personality change, from grim and nervy to smiles and charm, or vice versa.
It was for this reason—at the very moment the mad, meaty fingers closed on Saeed’s throat—that the first thing to come into his head was the nap.
However, prior to all this, and without a thought for what the future held, Saeed was preoccupied with a purely practical problem. Having taken on an extra job in the evenings, sacrificing the nights out at the café which did so much to keep him out of work, he discovered that his body was habituated to staying up late: not prepared, under any circumstances, to work straight through from morning to night. Previously, when he had held a single job, he’d tried for the late shifts and slept past noon or gone to the morning shift without sleeping then come home from work and fallen deep asleep until darkness fell and he’d gone out out to play. After starting the second job he began going to the café from his day job and none of his night time friends would be there. He’d have a coffee, read the evening papers then head out to his other job. For an hour or two he’d be full of energy, then his eyes would dim and his mind wander. If he carried on like this, he reckoned, he’d lose the new job in no time. There was nothing for it but a nap.
He took to going straight home after finishing work for the day, setting the alarm an hour or an hour and a half ahead, making the room dark, and stretching out on his back, begging sleep to come, if only for ten minutes, so that he could wake up ready for the night job.
At first, the plan failed. Either he wouldn’t sleep, worried that he’d miss work, or he’d fall into a coma, dead to the world, then wake past midnight when the streets were quiet and sit there in a funk, cursing himself, till morning.
He told his problem to an older, wiser colleague, a man who juggled three official occupations plus an unofficial one on the side. The colleague advised him to eat a heavy meal the moment he got home and then go to bed straight away and this way, the colleague stressed, the rich food would make him drowsy and at the same time sit heavy on his stomach so he wouldn’t sleep too long.
The colleague’s advice was a dazzling success, though it had one predictable drawback, namely nightmares.
Day one, he saw himself on one of those old-fashioned trains, sitting in a compartment whose window looked out over stretches of cultivation turned grey by winter, and perched opposite him a lovely young woman who addressed him with the intimacy of someone who knew him well, though he was completely unable to remember who she was and worried that she’d pick up on his cluelessness. Shortly afterwards—a classic development—he saw that he was barefoot and tried to distract her with conversation and the view, except that, all of sudden, he found himself on the platform in the crowded train station. He spotted a shoe-seller and made for him, only for the girl to start calling after him, then disembark herself to catch up with him. But the train lurched off without warning and a bloodcurdling scream rang out. He woke in terror and in the darkness of the room the alarm was beeping on and on.
He went to work out of sorts but soon put it out of his mind. The nightmare notwithstanding his brief doze had left him so full of energy that he decided stop in at the café for a while on his way home. They were all there and he had a good time, then he went home, fretting that he wouldn’t be able to drop off again before he was on in the morning, but he fell into a calm and dreamless sleep.
Day two found him in his childhood home, checking through the rooms and none of his family there. It was either nightfall or sunrise, and the sky looked overcast and dull through the windows in which not a single person appeared, as though the world was utterly empty, and he went to his old room and he looked at his bunk bed and he saw his younger brother, sleeping where he always did, on the top. He went over, full of yearning, and pulled back the covers, but there was nothing beneath them except a bundle made of more sheets. On the bottom bunk, his bed, the mattress had been half-pulled off onto the floor and the wooden bed-legs were cracked. He bent down to put the mattress back when he heard the apartment door open with a resounding crack, and panic seized him. The alarm didn’t go off until a minute or two after he’d woken.
Day three he had lunch and laid himself out a little nervously, but he quickly dozed off and found himself playing cards in café, when, all of a sudden he felt this tremendous pressure in his bowels and rushed to his feet to go and empty them, but the café had nothing but a revolting urinal so he went next door to a restaurant where they stopped him and said, Patrons only. He went out, searching for a public toilet, saw one at the end of the street and started running towards it like a man possessed. He pushed through the door and a woman told him off and told him it was the Ladies’. He went to the other door and encountered another woman, massive in a black robe, blocking the entrance, and then a man grabbed him by the arm and said, You should be ashamed of yourself, and he was drenched in cold sweat and practically weeping from the awful pain, and he woke up and wiped his eyes, but there were no tears there. He got out of bed, panting, caught his breath and went into the bathroom. While he was washing his face he heard the alarm go off. He said, Where were you a few minutes ago? then realised he was talking to the alarm and he began cursing the colleague’s advice.
But day four passed peacefully. The only dream was one about the national team, down three goals in a big match, and even then the referee added extra time, at which the supporters took heart, and then the team was awarded a penalty. But the alarm went off before the star player could take it and Saeed awoke, not too unhappy because there hadn’t been enough time left in the game for them to make up the difference, and anyway, strictly between him and himself, he didn’t count that dream as a nightmare.
Day five he didn’t dream of anything—or perhaps he dreamed of something he didn’t recall—because it was his day off, and he didn’t set the alarm, and he slept for a very long time indeed, and then the day after the day after that he saw the girl from the train again. She was asking if she might sit across from him in the compartment and she didn’t act as though she’d met him before, though he wasn’t sure if this was a recurring dream or his mind playing tricks on him.
However his first nap of the new week was very unpleasant. He was in an unlit street, searching for an old address and damning himself for losing the piece of paper on which it was written, and he went down one alley, which led to another, and then he was surrounded by a gang of youths who looked up to no good. He got ready for a mugging and then they were searching him in a most degrading fashion, so he quickly turned over everything he had and they kicked him away. But one of them followed him with this dreadful knife in his hand. He was walking right behind him, but Saeed wasn’t brave enough to look round and he couldn’t decide whether he should speed up or slow down. He walked straight ahead and the criminal walked behind him, like his shadow, and the road went on and on but always empty, and he felt something prick his back, and he sat up screaming, and felt an ache in his side, and considered—for the first time—dropping one of the jobs.
That evening he met up with the wise old colleague. He dithered a bit then told him about his new problem. The colleague listened and slowly but surely a look of the utmost contempt stole over his face. He said: Those are nightmares? You call that nonsense nightmares?
At that moment another colleague arrived, and then the older and wiser colleague was telling him some of what they’d been talking about, and the other man laughed and started having a go at Saeed:
Over had your eye fall out and you’ve spent all night trying to find it on the floor between people’s shoes? Ever buried a body under the boards of a cramped room, weeping because you’ve become a murderer? Your guts ever exploded in a dream and your screams woken the neighbours?
The older, wiser colleague joined in:
Ever lusted after your mother or aunt and spent the whole day unable to look anyone in the face? Ever had your arse felt up and you want to push them away but you can’t lift a finger? How many times have you fallen in a well? How many times have you muttered the creed surrounded by rats and rubbish? How many snakes have bitten your balls?
Beginning to feel that his nightmares weren’t up to much, Saeed changed the subject, though in his heart of hearts he still felt the dream with the mugging and the knife hadn’t been too bad.
He finished work earlier than usual and left. He wandered along for a while, deciding between home and the café. He saw a stationer’s, and it occurred to him to write his dreams down, and then he decided to walk on and catch a microbus from his stop in the square nearby. He didn’t find a bus stop. He found policeman and fights breaking out on the edge of the square and he knew that they’d moved the stop to another square. Along with the other pedestrians he headed off towards it and followed the crowd down a short cut, where he caught sight of an ancient building that stopped him in his tracks.
Was this the building he’d dreamed of on the fifth night, the night he’d thought he couldn’t remember? It had featured regularly: lurking behind tumbledown old villas in Ain Shams, in some unspecified spot between Mansour and Adly streets in Downtown, on an antiquated street corner in Shubra. He found its presence somehow reassuring, since in every dream he knew that he had the key, that the rent was paid for years in advance, and that all he had to do was remember exactly where it was.
He stood outside the building, pondering the balconies that looked ready to collapse at any moment, and instinctively rummaged in his pocket as if feeling for the key. But a sudden commotion and shoving brought him back to reality and, cautiously, out of curiosity, he headed towards the disturbance. As soon as he made it through the crowd he saw the massive-bodied madman shoving people, invective pouring from his terrible throat.
Saeed backed off a couple of paces when the man moved in his direction. Although surrounded by people, he was—as a result of certain unfortunate experiences in his life—quite certain that the man would make straight for him, but he hadn’t expected him to pick a fight in quite this manner, nor that his neck would be squeezed with such impossible strength. Saeed had no idea that two courageous bystanders had tried and failed to free him from the madman, and as he suffocated his bulging eyes came to rest on the crumbling building, summoning a faint hope that all this would turn out to be just another nightmare.