“Would it be so difficult for you to make up some stories for me?”
Khalid tells me that he has never been one for telling stories, that he wouldn’t know where to start.
“It is simply a question of using your imagination,” I say. “Each and every one of us is born with an imagination, just as we are born with arms and legs, and the capacity to see, touch, hear, smell and taste. It’s child’s play.”
Khalid looks at me with a doubtful expression. Once again, I see fear in his eyes, and I realize that it is me that he is frightened of. Or if it is not me exactly that he fears, then it is… my womanliness… He fears the features, if you will, of my sex. Perhaps this is simply another way of saying that Khalid fears his own desires. He fears the power that I can have over him.
But what he doesn’t seem to realize is that he is wasting his time fretting so, since he really doesn’t have a chance of resisting me. I know full well that I’ve got him where I want him.
If only I could be as sure of my husband, Ahmed, as I am of this man!
“When I was a little boy we lived in a small village about a hundred miles from Riyadh,” Khalid begins his story. “The village was surrounded by desert and life was hard for all of us. Then one day, my father told us that he needed to go away on business. He would be going a long way away – all the way across the desert, in fact. Several months, and perhaps even years, would pass before we would see him again. But we should not doubt that he would be back.” Khalid pauses and from the expression in his eyes it is clear that he is straining to enter into the world that he is constructing in his imagination.
I run a hand over my body, coquettishly, sure in the knowledge that it is the lure of my nakedness that is keeping Khalid here, in this room.
He continues to peer into the tub, and it is as though he is mesmerised by the thought of my nakedness, which is covered only by the soapy water. I scarcely know whether to despise or pity him. It has not failed to occur to me that I am running a certain risk here, of course; because at any moment Khalid may decide to drag me from the tub and force me to submit to his will. But although I would not welcome his raping me, I am willing to run the risk of such an eventuality in the hope of finding a little entertainment. For I am so bored, in this luxurious cage that is my home, that I fear I will lose my mind if I cannot find something to amuse me.
Khalid blinks a couple of times and then he resumes his story. “While my father was away, my mother took a lover,” he says. “And eventually – around a year after Father had left – she found that she was with child. No sooner did her belly begin to protrude than her lover made himself scarce, out of fear of what would happen when Father returned from his trip.
“Naturally Mother became very worried, for she knew that Father would not countenance the situation. And how was she to conceal the evidence of her infidelity, when there it was, growing larger in her belly with every passing day? Mother thought long and hard about the situation in which she now found herself. Finally she decided to take us all to Riyadh, on the pretext that Grandmother was ill and in need of a doctor. This way she would be able to find accommodation for us in the capital and have her baby without Father knowing about it, and then… Well, at least she would have time to work out what her next move should be.
“So Mother left a note for Father on the kitchen table, just in case his return should coincide with our absence, and then the three of us – Mother, my grandmother and I– set off on the bus for Riyadh.”
I suddenly feel as though I’ve spent enough time in the bath. “All right, Khalid,” I say, “you’ve got until the same time tomorrow to think about what’s going to happen in the rest of your story. Now if you will just be good enough to fetch me my towel…”
“So we took the bus to Riyadh, the three of us,” Khalid resumes the following morning, “and Mother found an apartment for us to live in, using the money she made from selling the two camels that Father had left behind. What little money Mother had soon ran out, though, and she was forced to look for work.
“After spending several anxious days making enquiries, she found employment as an assistant in a boutique in the centre of the city. Mother was delighted at the thought that she would now be able to feed the three of us and keep a roof over our heads. But then, no sooner did she begin her new job than she discovered that lots of men would come into the place through the back door, when the boutique was supposed to be closed for lunch, and all kinds of ‘strange goings-on’ would occur.
“In short, as well as being a boutique the place was also being used as a brothel, and Mother felt dreadfully compromised by having to work there. However, she couldn’t afford to leave her position because she needed the money. So she was trapped.
“The baby inside of Mother’s belly grew and grew, and there were days when she didn’t feel well enough to work. But she was unable to take any time off, because we were still struggling to survive even with the money that she was bringing in. And so, to cut a long story short, she was forced to work right up until the date when the baby was due. The baby failed to arrive that day. But then, three days later, my tiny brother, whom Mother had decided to call Aziz, made his appearance on the great stage of fools that is the world. He was born at lunchtime, when the back of the boutique was full of punters who were keeping the whores that used the rooms there busy… And as it happened, one of the punters turned out to be a doctor, and when he heard Mother’s screams he came to find out what was wrong with her. And it was he who delivered the baby…”
“Wow!” I say at this, “what a way to come into the world!”
“But it’s not a true story, this that you’re telling me, is it?”
“Of course it is,” Khalid replies with a nod of the head. “Do you really believe that I could possibly invent all this?”
I pull a face, as if to say that I don’t believe a word of it. Even so, though, I am curious to know what happens next, and I urge Khalid to carry on with his story.
“I am afraid that you are going to have to wait until tomorrow for the next chapter,” he says. And with that he turns on his heel and leaves the room.
“As soon as she had given birth to little Aziz, Mother’s heart went out to him,” Khalid resumes the following morning. “But at the same time she realized that if she was to keep Aziz with us then she must resign herself to continuing to live as she had been during these past few months. Well, Mother was daunted by the prospect of continuing to live in such precarious circumstances for the rest of her days. It is no joke, after all, having to provide for two children, as well as for your mother, all on your own anywhere. But in a place like Riyadh−well, you can just imagine how difficult a situation Mother was faced with…
“And then, just when it seemed that things could scarcely get any worse,” Khalid goes on, “the owner of the boutique sold up and Mother found herself without a job, and therefore without any means of feeding us and of keeping a roof over our heads.
“Mother thought long and hard about what she should do, and then, to cut a long story short, she bought bus tickets to take us home.”
“But how can she possibly go home?” I wonder aloud. “Ah yes, of course, I’ve got it…! She’s going to pass the baby off as her husband’s, is that it?”
“No, she can’t do that,” Khalid says. “How can she when the boy is still clearly a tiny baby and she has not seen my father for nearly two years by this time? If Father had returned from the desert, then Mother must surely have realized that she would be signing her own death warrant were she to return home with little Aziz.”
“Perhaps he will take pity on her, though,” I suggest.
“There was no chance of that, I’m afraid,” Khalid says. “Father was far too proud. Besides, he was primitive and his ideas were those of the ancient tribes that live in the desert.”
“The Bedouins,” I say.
“So then, what is she going to do?”
“In order to learn the answer to that,” Khalid says, “you will have to wait until tomorrow.”
I spend the rest of the day lying on my bed, turning the situation over in my head. What would I do if I were in such a situation? I wonder.
This question causes me to exercise all of my mental resources and gives me no rest. Night comes and I find that I still cannot come up with an answer that I am happy with…
“Mother made up her mind what she was going to do,” Khalid says the following morning. “And without telling anyone, she went out with little Aziz that afternoon and took a taxi into the desert. Then when she eventually saw some Bedouins, she went and introduced herself, and the one among them who appeared to be the leader asked her what it was that she wanted. Mother looked into the man’s eyes long and hard, and she decided that she could trust this man. And having arrived at this conclusion, she asked him to take her beloved son, Aziz, with him.
“The Bedouin she addressed was tall and slim and he had the hard, flinty eyes that are so typical of his tribe; the skin on his face was like brown leather and full of deep creases. The Bedouin she addressed was tall and slim. He had dark leathery skin and the flinty brown eyes that are so typical of his tribe. He did not waste time with smiles, or with any such pleasantries, but went straight to the heart of the matter and asked Mother why she no longer wanted to keep the boy. She told him that she did want to keep Aziz; she wanted to keep him more than anything else in the whole wide world. But the sad truth was that she could not afford to feed and clothe him. She already had ten children, she lied, and her husband had recently died.
“Mother told the man that she had always honoured and respected the Bedouins and their ways, and that she knew them to be good Muslims and men of their word. It was for this reason, she said, that she was asking the man to take her son. Because she knew that little Aziz would be well taken care of and brought up in the right manner.
“Well, the Bedouin listened in silence to what Mother had to say, and then he agreed to take the boy. Mother thanked the man and begged him to take care of her little Aziz and protect him from all harm, and the Bedouin promised her that he would treat him as if he were his own.
“When she heard this, Mother began to sob as only a woman in her situation can. And she gave little Aziz one final hug and a kiss, before she allowed the Bedouin to take him.
“Mother later told me that she felt as though her heart was going to break at that moment, and she would have been grateful had the ground parted and swallowed her up. But she managed to convince herself that little Aziz would at least be well taken care of.
“With that she turned and got into the back of the waiting taxi, and she told the driver to take her back to where they’d come from.”
“But Khalid,” I say, “this really has gone on far enough… Now you really must tell me whether this story is true or not.”
“But of course it is true,” he replies. And yet there is something in his manner that causes me to distrust him.
“I don’t believe you,” I say.
“It is not for the storyteller to answer such questions, anyway,” Khalid replies. “His job is merely to tell what happened. Then it is up to his audience to decide whether or not they wish to believe him.”
“So what happens next?”
“The following day the three of us – my mother, my grandmother and I – took the bus home.”
“Back to your original home, you mean?” I say. “Your home in the village in the desert, where your Father will no doubt be waiting for you, having returned from his trip?”
“That’s right,” Khalid nods.
“But what about little Aziz?” I ask Khalid the following morning, from the warmth of my bath. “Tell me what happens to him first.”
“All right, then,” he gave assent with a nod of the head. “Well, the years passed, and as Aziz grew up he found himself being harshly treated by the Bedouins. In short, they began to use him as their slave, after the man who had promised Mother he would take care of him died.
“The daughter of one the Bedouins was kind to Aziz, though. Her name was Yasmin, and she was fourteen years old at that time, and her face was already stunningly beautiful. She alone treated Aziz as an equal.
“Well, Aziz soon fell hopelessly in love with her, and it happened that they went to the capital one day, where they put up at a hotel called the Al Mansour. And during their stay there a very wealthy merchant took a shine to Yasmin.
“To cut a long story short, the merchant spoke to the girl’s father of his wish to marry her and the old man gave his consent. So the merchant spoke to Yasmin herself of his wish to marry her, and she told him she would happily agree to become his wife if only he would perform one simple favour for her…”
“It’s not what I’m thinking it is, is it, Khalid, surely?”
“It is indeed,” Khalid smiles. “Yasmin told the merchant that he must prove his love for her by buying the freedom of ‘the poor lad that her family had been using as a slave.’ ”
“When he heard her say this, the Arab merchant eyed Yasmin suspiciously and asked her why the lad was so important to her. And Yasmin said, ‘It is not what you are thinking… but simply that the boy has always been a faithful servant to me and deserves better than the treatment he has received from my family.’”
“Clever girl,” I cry, and I raise my hands up out of the bathtub and bring them together in a loud and triumphant clap. “But come on, hurry up and tell me what happens next!”
“I am afraid,” Khalid says, “that you are going to have to wait until tomorrow to discover the answer to your question.”
Once more, I spend the rest of the day trying to imagine what is going to happen to Yasmin and Aziz. And then, just when I decide that I have worried and suffered enough on their account, I fall asleep and begin to dream about Aziz’s mother and his brother and grandmother upon their return to their home in the village in the middle of the desert, where Aziz’s father is no doubt waiting for them…
“First of all, Khalid,” I say the following morning, “I want you to tell what happened afterwards to Aziz.”
“Well that is quite a simple task,” Khalid replies. “Aziz found work with an old cobbler in Riyadh. But then the old cobbler took ill and died and Aziz was deeply grieved… Nevertheless, he took over the business and things went well for him−so well, in fact, that he was able to open a bigger shoe shop on Aruba Road, in one of the better areas of Riyadh. Then, five years later, Aziz sold up and moved to Beirut, where he bought himself a shoe shop on Verdun Street.”
“But that is where my father had a boutique, Khalid,” I cry.
“Yes, well they do say it’s a small world.”
“Khalid, that does it… I’m quite sure now that you’re just making all this up to pull my leg!”
“So do I take it that you are no longer interested in finding out what happened next?”
“But of course I am.”
“In that case I shall resume my story,” Khalid says. “So as I was saying, Aziz opened a shoe shop on fashionable Verdun Street, in Beirut. By now he was really doing very well indeed, because all of the well-to-do people in the city came to buy their shoes in his shop.
“Then one day who should enter the shop but Yasmin. She was now much older, of course, but the passage of time had only served to make her even more beautiful than ever. Before, when Aziz had known her during his time with the Bedouins, she had merely been a pretty young girl; but she had blossomed since then, he now found, into a woman of truly astonishing beauty. “Why, it’s you, Yasmin, isn’t it!” Aziz cried with a mixture of surprise and delight.
Yasmin looked back at Aziz as if she didn’t recognize him for a moment or two. But then an expression of great warmth came into her eyes. “Why, Aziz, can it really be you?!”’
“Oh, Khalid!” I cry, and I splash my hands about in the water in my excitement. “Why I had no idea you were such a romantic… So come on, hurry up and tell me what happens next!”
“Aziz and Yasmin spent a long time telling each other all about what had happened to them since the days when they lived together as part of the same family. Then Yasmin looked at her watch and said she had to go−her husband would be expecting her… Before she left, though, Aziz made her promise to come back again to talk to him some more the following day. And he followed her with his eyes as she went out…
“Only just as she stepped onto the pavement, a bomb went off and poor Yasmin was thrown into the air by the force of the explosion. Aziz rushed out of the shop, but by the time he got to her Yasmin was dead.”
“Oh no, Khalid,” I cry, “how could you possibly be so mean and cruel?”
“I am most sorry,” Khalid says.“However I am not a dealer in fairy tales, but have simply been telling you a story that actually happened. You might have stopped me at any point. But instead of doing so, you seemed to be egging me on all the while, so keen were you to learn the fate of the characters in the tale.”
“Oh Khalid, you can argue all you like,” I reply, “but I still think you are awful for telling me such a cruel story.”
“But the story is not yet quite finished,” Khalid says. “For shortly after that happened our father died. And to cut a long story short, Aziz (who had been communicating with Mother and me for some time by then) came to the funeral. He was clearly terribly distraught. And when I expressed my surprise at the depth of his love for a father whom he had scarcely known, Aziz told me that although his grief for Father was both great and heartfelt it didn’t compare with that which the recent death of a girl he’d loved ‘as much as life itself’ was now causing him to suffer. And it was then that Aziz told me the story of how he had come to know Yasmin, during the time he passed with the Bedouins, and of how he met her again one day years later, quite by chance, when Yasmin happened to enter his shoe shop on Verdun Street.”
“Well, Khalid,” I say, “that really was a very moving story. Although I have to say that I don’t believe a word of it.”
“But it is true,” Khalid replies. “After that, I went to Beirut with Aziz, and that is where I met your husband. He seemed like an honourable man and so when he asked me if I would like to work for him I said yes.”
Just then, the door flies open and my husband, Ahmed, bursts into the room. On his face there is an expression of great fury and cruelty as he draws his cutlass from its sheath. He moves towards Khalid and, seeing what is about to happen, I jump up out of the bathtub and throw myself, naked, between the two men. “No, Ahmed,” I cry, “I won’t permit you to do this… If you must murder anyone then I am the person who deserves to die… I invited Khalid to come into my quarters. But I only did so because I wanted to hear a story he had to tell.”
“But how dare you shame me in this way, by allowing a manservant into your quarters while you were bathing?”
“How else was I to seek diversion?” I reply. “You always avoid me and prefer to spend your time with your other two wives, now that I am no longer young and beautiful. Of late I have begun to feel desperate. So desperate that it’s only been the story that poor Khalid has been telling me that’s kept me from losing my mind.”
At this point, Ahmed throws down his cutlass and falls at my feet. “If I avoided you it was only because I felt you had stopped loving me,” he sobs. “I have been driven almost crazy with despair…and I have only been making such a fuss of my other two wives in order to try and make you jealous… Why, it is you and you alone that I truly love…”
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Nick Sweet was born in Bristol, England, and is currently living in Malaga, Spain. His novel Gemini Games is available from Amazon. Gemini Games was praised by such acclaimed British authors as Andrew O’Hagan, D.M. Thomas and D.J. Taylor. Nick has had 18 successes with his short stories to date. His stories have been published in a number of magazines in North America, and these include: Descant, Evergreen Review (twice), Bartleby Snopes (twice), Fertile Source, Forge, Offcourse Literary Journal, Cutthroat, Shelf Life, SN Review, Paper Skin Glass Bones and Sliver of Stone etc. Ink Tank has just published another story of Nick’s in its fourth issue and two more of his stories are soon to appear in an anthology entitled ‘Betrayal Wears a Pretty Face’, which is to be published by Liberated Muse Productions. Nick is currently hard at work on another novel. In the past he has moved around a fair bit, and his experiences in Riyadh helped him to write Nadia.
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