Egypt - 1951
It was a sunny room, filled with colorful picture books, and a window looking down on a street filled with noisy people. It was also a happy room, with a big table where her mother sat and wrote things from the books, and where she also sat drawing pictures of donkeys and pyramids. Her mother would hang the pictures on the wall and her father would admire them when he came home from work, then he’d take her for a walk along the busy street. They never went out unless her father came too. He would lift her up on his shoulders and she would hold on to his hair and look down on the people and laugh.
They left the sunny room when she was six, and went to live in a dark, crowded house with her father's family, and with the bright, happy room, went also the books, the drawing and the laughter, and in their place came the shouting, the slapping and the tears.
Zarena was seven the night she and her mother ran away.
While her father and her aunt Hebba were visiting friends in Qena, they stuffed some clothes into a plastic bag and hurried across rough fields in the dark to catch the train to Cairo. From there, her mother used the last of the money for tickets to Alexandria.
They stayed with an old Greek man and his wife that her mother had known before she was married, and they did not venture out of the house for five days - not until the day of the market.
Papa Zoupo said they shouldn't go, but her mother said they needed to get out and that it would be all right. The market was only across the square, and if they wore their head cloths pulled across their faces, it would hide their fair skins.
It was so good to be out in the sunshine again she felt like skipping. A strange city too, with exciting new things to see, and she loved the name Alexandria. It was a girl's name. Not like Qena, which sounded like a camel's name.
They were never going back there, her mother promised, and as soon as her family sent the money they were going to live in France. She liked that name too, but it was a boy's name. Alexandria was better.
Her mother held her hand so tight as they crossed the square that it hurt her fingers. She tried wriggling them free, so she could run and skip, but her mother tugged impatiently, pulling her close and walking fast.
They crossed a road full of yellow taxis and carts piled high with vegetables and fruit, then they were in the market. It was very noisy. Tea-sellers beat on their shiny urns as if they were gongs, and merchants sitting by their goods called out and held up brightly colored scarves or long, thin fish that were all dried and smelly.
With so much to see she would have stopped more often, but the urgent tugging on her hand kept her moving.
In her free hand, Zarena held the cloth bag into which her mother put the things they bought for Mama Zoupo, shielding it from the crowd with her body so they wouldn't get squashed; raisins and olives and dates, and especially the sweet cakes with the sticky brown tops that she knew Papa Zoupo would use to tease her.
'I keep forgetting I have no children left to eat them,' he told her the first time he brought the cakes home. 'Now Mama will be angry with me for buying them. But they taste so good, little Zarena, and I cannot throw them away. You must do it. But quickly, before Mama sees them... and be careful not to leave any crumbs.'
Papa Zoupo was funny, and Mama Zoupo cried a lot, but mostly they were happy tears. She was crying the first time she saw her, the day she and her mother arrived at the house after leaving the train, and was still crying when she and Papa Zoupo returned from their walk to the sea a whole hour later.
With the bag nearly full, they were about to leave the market, walking past a jumble of empty carts, and she was looking at the donkeys standing together with their heads down like they were sleepy, when her hand was suddenly pulled free of her mother’s and the bag was jolted from her hand, spilling all the good things on the ground. An arm caught her around the middle and lifted her, squeezing the breath from her so her cries were jerky as she was carried quickly out of sight behind the carts.
She heard her mother’s cry and managed to twist far enough around to see her. The head cloth had gone, freeing the long hair, and a man was pulling her by it. She stumbled and fell, but still he dragged her, jerking her head from side to side, shouting and leaning over to slap at her face; slaps that bloodied her mouth and cheeks.
'Khawaga!' French whore!'
The man was her father.
Her mother's broken cries, the sharp slaps, the harsh voice repeating the same thing over and over, were all but smothered by the noise and shouting from the market, but Zarena heard them as if no other sound existed.
Kicking and struggling, she found her breath and began to scream, and her father stopped to stare at her. His eyes were red, and his face was swollen and ugly. He spoke sharply to the person holding her and a hand with a big silver ring on one finger was placed over her mouth. The hand and ring of her Aunt Hebba.
Her mother was kneeling with her head on the ground, almost as if she were praying. Her father lifted her face, his hand raised and waiting to slap it, and Zarena caught a glimpse of her mother’s bloodied face looking out from behind a veil of hair. Her mother began to crawl forward, calling her name, but her father pushed her over with his foot and began kicking her. Kicking at the arms that covered her face and head, kicking at her body, his voice rising until he was again shouting with every kick:
'French whore! French whore!'
Several people ran amongst the wagons, and somewhere a woman started screaming: 'Bolees! Bolees!'
A man in a white jellaba pulled at her father's arm, shouting something at him, and her father shouted back. 'French whore! I will kill her!'
Other men pulled at him, surrounding him and pushing him away and, in the confusion, Zarena was carried, struggling, around the carts and on to the street.
Her father followed a few moments later, breathing heavily, his face still strange and ugly. He jerked open the back door of a yellow taxi and pushed her in.
She kicked out, screaming, and her father leaned across the seat and raised his hand, holding it poised like the snake with the flat head she had seen standing up from its pot in the market, swaying and waiting for the right moment, and she stopped screaming to stare at it. The open palm was smeared with blood.
The blow struck her on the side of her face and mouth, knocking her off the seat to the floor.
She stayed there, huddled down with her eyes screwed tight as humming sounds filled her head, but even with her eyes closed she could see her mother's face looking at her through the hair, and she could see the hand open and waiting, and she knew whose blood it was she tasted.
The sound of her mother’s frightened voice calling out her name stayed with her, and she clung to it, pushing aside everything else, and it was still uppermost in her mind a long time after they had driven away.
Zarena did not see her mother again, and no word of her was spoken. She had no way of knowing what it was her mother had done, or even if she was alive or dead. The speaking of her name was forbidden.
For a long, long time she prayed secretly that her mother would come with Papa Zoupo and take her away, but in her heart she always knew they would not.
Neither her father, nor her aunt Hebba, spoke to her on the long return journey to Qena. Orders were given in short, brittle words, and usually accompanied by a push or sharp prod, as if she were a dumb animal. Twice, her father slapped her. Once for mentioning her mother, and another time for staring at him; looking into his eyes. That too, she came to learn, was now forbidden, and she soon became stiff and awkward under the constant fear of doing something wrong,
Eight people, including herself, lived in the small house. Aunt Hebba, her father's widowed sister, and Fatma, married to her uncle. There were three other children. Two boys a little older than herself, and a four-year-old girl who wet the bed every night.
Her father was seldom there, but his absence made little difference to the way she was treated, and Zarena wondered why she had been brought back when it was so obvious she was not wanted.
The bed she had slept in with her mother had gone and she was made to share a bed with her small cousin, and to wash the soiled sheet each morning.
All her mother's belongings; her clothes, books, photographs and jewellery had vanished. When she asked her eldest cousin about the books, he told her they had been burned because they told lies and were evil.
She cried that night, and many other nights, with the smelly sheet pulled over her head.
They came for her when she was asleep. A hand was clamped over her mouth and other hands held her legs and arms. She was unable to move or cry out. They carried her through to the bathroom where a candle was burning, but a towel was placed over her face so she could not see.
They lifted her night vest to her chin laid her naked body on the cold floor with her head clamped firmly between two knees from behind. A hand held her under her chin, pulling her head back and pressing against her nose so she could scarcely breathe.
They talked in harsh whispers, about things she did not understand, and she was rigid with fear, convinced she was about to have her throat cut. It was what happened to bad girls, she had been told.
Rough hands gripped her legs and forced them apart, spreading them wide, and her arms were held at the wrist and elbow and pressed hard against the floor. She stopped breathing, her body trembling violently as she imagined the knife coming towards her throat. She felt the pressure of hands and fingers around her private place, then a searing pain.
The unexpected shock of it made her body jump against the hands holding her, and she screamed into the one clamped over her mouth. It felt as if she had been touched inside with a hot coal. The burning spread like a flame upwards into her belly and licked hot on her thighs. A wad of cloth was pushed up between her legs.
No one spoke as they carried her back to the bed. Her cousin had been taken away and she was left alone in the darkness with her confusion and pain.
For two days she was unable to walk or relieve herself, and she thought she was going to burst. On the third day she had no choice but to put up with the pain or wet the bed like her young cousin. She cried and bit on her lip until it swelled, and for more than two weeks after that first time she drank nothing, taking only small sips of water when she could no longer bear her thirsts and, gradually, it became easier.
She was given no explanation for what had occurred other than it was something all girls had to have done to make them clean. She was put to work preparing food and washing clothes, and that was to be her duty for the next three years. She was not permitted to attend the school with her cousins, although, thanks to her mother, she could read and write better than any of them, and even speak a little French. She was a girl, and the rules were strict. Running or raising her voice was forbidden, and she had to keep her legs together at all times. Her eyes were to be downcast whenever she spoke to any male, even her cousins, and she was not to speak unless spoken to first. If food was short, it was she who went hungry, and if she complained or broke any of the rules, even though it was not her fault, the punishment was swift.
She saw less and less of her father, and when he came she kept out of the way. He had work in one of the towns, but she never knew where it was or what he did. She was kept in ignorance of everything that her aunt Hebba thought didn't concern her. What they did tell her though, and often, was that it was because of her mother that her father had lost his good government job. Her mother was a foreign whore, Hebba told her, and should have been stoned, and if she were not careful to keep pure thoughts and a pure body, it is what would happen to her.
It was unfortunate that she had her mother's looks and fair complexion and, as she grew older, it became more noticeable. She was tall and slender, with her mother's green eyes, but her hair was dark and curly. She was a foreigner in their midst, and it was not long before they started calling her khawaga. It was a name also given to tourists and Jews – and her mother.
As she grew, the male members of the family began to look at her strangely, at times even kindly, and this was not lost on Hebba and Fatma. She had to wear her galabia more carefully and to hide her feet, and she was made to wear a head cloth more often.
It was the attention of the males that frightened her more than anything, particularly her uncle, the brother of Hebba's dead husband. He was a mean, thin faced old man with flickering eyes that followed her, and Zarena knew he was thinking bad things and tried to keep out of his way, but it was not always possible.
He worked in a neighbor’s field behind the house, and she had to take food to him during the day. When she arrived, he would sit in the shade of the well and eat while she waited. Mostly he was with others, when she was ignored, but sometimes he was alone and watched her while he ate, and when this happened, she was careful to keep her distance and avert her eyes.
On the day before her eleventh birthday - which always fell on the same day as the festival holiday of Sham en Nessim, the celebration of Spring - she took his food as usual. The bread she carried in a basket, but the bowl of mashed eggs and olive oil she held in her hand to prevent it from spilling.
She was only a few steps from where he sat waiting, when a stick became tangled in the hem of her robe and she tripped. The bowl slipped from her hand and landed at his feet, splattering him with the food. With a cry of dismay, she bent quickly to pick it up, but he caught hold of her.
'Stupid bint! What do you think you are doing wasting food?'
'I’m sorry, Bek! It was an accident.'
He shook her, so hard that she lost her balance and fell against him.
'An accident so you say. Well then, I say you must be taught a lesson.'
He spun her around and threw her face down across his lap. Holding her down with one hand, he pulled up her robe to expose her bare legs and underpants.
Expecting to be slapped, Zarena struggled and cried out in protest. 'I am sorry, Bek! It was an accident. I am sorry!'
'Be quiet. You must take punishment in silence.'
The expected slapping never came. Instead, she felt his coarse hand forcing its way between her legs. A finger pushed painfully into her, wriggling like a giant scaly worm towards the place still protected by its membrane of honor; a membrane that only the finger of a husband or daya could pierce. To have it broken, she had been warned, was the worst thing that could happen to a girl. It could even cost her life,.
Zarena squealed in alarm and twisted her legs tightly together, but he was strong. His breathing had changed, and the hand holding her down began to slacken its grip. She twisted her head and tried to bite him on the leg, but the cloth of his robe filled her mouth and she was unable to clench her teeth on flesh.
In desperation, Zarena reached forward and scooped handfuls of the sandy soil over her shoulder, in the direction of his head.
He grunted in surprise and pulled his hand away to rub at his eyes, and she rolled off, scrambling to her feet. She started to run, then stopped to pick up the basket and bowl. To return without it would only mean being sent back to fetch it.
Her uncle was on his feet, still brushing at his eyes. Afraid he would follow, she ran for a short distance before slowing to a walk, not wanting to draw attention, but when she was close to the house she saw her aunt standing rigid in the doorway, looking out.
With a sinking feeling, Zarena realized she must have seen what happened, but she had no choice but to continue on with legs that felt at the same time both stiff and weak.
Her aunt said nothing as she walked past, did not even look at her, and Zarena went directly to the bathroom and stood against the closed door, her chest pounding, listening for the scuff of footsteps, but none came.
She lowered her underpants and examined them, and was relieved to see only the stains from her uncle’s dirty hands. The soft skin of her thighs was scratched and blotchy, and she felt sore inside, but she was sure no damage had been done. She took a deep breath, picked up the basket, and went through to the kitchen.
Hebba and Fatma were there, talking. They fell silent as she came in and remained silent as she washed the bowl. She put it away, then picked up a basket of washing from the floor and hurried out.
For the remainder of the afternoon she kept out of the way as much as possible, doing the washing and dreading her uncle’s return.
He came at the usual time and followed the normal routine, bathing himself then sitting alone to say his prayers, running the yellow prayer beads through his fingers as if nothing had happened. But there was tension in the house. Zarena could feel it, and even her male cousins must have felt it, for they were unusually quiet and well mannered.
The crowded house had little privacy. Her uncle and aunt Fatma had to pass her bed to go to their own, so when she heard them coming she pulled the sheet over her head. She was still awake when her young cousin climbed in and curled up beside her, and for once Zarena was glad of her company. She could not believe the incident with her uncle had ended, and began to wonder if, despite the silence and tension, she had been wrong and her aunt had seen nothing.
She was jolted from sleep by a stifled scream. It was followed by several slaps and the angry voice of her uncle. 'Get out! You are nothing! Out! Out!'
Zarena sat up in alarm before realizing what she was doing.
The door of her uncle’s room crashed open and her aunt stumbled out, sobbing and holding her face, and she saw Zarena sitting in the bed, staring at her. 'Khawaga whore!' she hissed, and Zarena ducked quickly back under the sheet.
She lay hardly daring to breathe, expecting at any moment to hear the door open and her uncle come out. Her body felt cold and shivery, yet also warm and damp, as if she had a fever, and she had a sick feeling in her belly. She needed desperately to relieve herself, but did not have the courage to go.
At dawn she was still awake, her mind in turmoil. Desperate for relief, she eased out of bed and threw her robe loosely around, then padded quickly to the bathroom. She closed the door quietly and covered the gap below it with her robe before striking a match and lighting the candle.
She had already removed her underpants before she saw the bloodstain. She stared at it in horror. Looking down at herself, she saw the smears of blood.
Zarena walked slowly towards the basin, her heart thudding. She saw her image in the spotty mirror and looked away quickly, not wanting to see herself. She picked up her pants and used them to wipe her legs, hoping for a moment it was only the scratches that were bleeding, but they were not. It was coming from inside, and worse still, it had not stopped. Her stomach squirmed and she leaned over the basin, but nothing came. Holding a hand to her mouth, she stifled a sob and fought the tears.
She tried not to cry for her mother, or for her fear and loneliness; for the life she hated and for the pain in her belly she did not understand. She tried not to cry because she was a girl, or because of the blood, or because she was no longer a virgin. And she tried not to cry because she was afraid of dying.
Zarena had cried many times, but never had she tried so hard not to, and when she succeeded, she felt stronger. What she had feared had happened, and there was nothing she could do about it. Her life was as good as over, but what was left of it was not going to be wasted in tears or waiting for something to happen. She would leave, and if they caught her and killed her, it didn't matter, she no longer cared.
She washed her underpants and put them back on before emptying the basin into the hole in the floor. The bleeding appeared to have stopped. She extinguished the light and put on her robe. The house was still dark and silent.
Back at the bed, she pulled the damp sheet gently from under her sleeping cousin and quietly left the house. In the grey light of dawn she could see only one small bloodstain. She left the sheet in a bucket to soak, then hid in the chicken house with the hens. If they found her, she would say she was collecting the eggs.
It was only when she saw her uncle leave the house later than usual, accompanied by her two cousins, that she remembered it was a holiday. For a while, she considered abandoning her plan, then realized it could be an advantage. The routine would be changed, giving her a better chance to get away without being missed.
Hebba peered out from the door several times, obviously looking for her, then she left with her small cousin, going down the road towards the house of a friend, and Zarena guessed it was where her other aunt, Fatma, had spent the night. It was the perfect opportunity. No one would miss her for a long time, and with the holiday, the road to Qena would be busier than usual. She would not be noticed.
She left the chickens and went to the empty house. She knew exactly where to look for the money she needed. She removed the flat tin box from under her uncle’s clothes and opened it. Inside were a few pound notes, several fifty piaster notes, and some coins. She stuffed the notes into the inside pocket of her robe and returned the box to its place.
She was guiltily aware that what she was doing was terribly wrong. Thieving was one of the worst crimes. If caught, she may have her hand chopped off. She hesitated. It was not too late. She could simply get on with her work and say she had felt ill and gone for a walk. Surely that would be acceptable? And if she left, what would she do? At the most she would have only a few hours before they missed her. How far could she go in such a short time? When they caught her they would bring her back and maybe chop off her hand, then cut her throat and leave her body lying in the field for the dogs to eat.
Zarena felt she was going to be sick. She went through to the bathroom and leaned over the basin, but nothing came. She checked to see if the bleeding had stopped. It hadn't. There was not as much, but it was still there. She saw a pale, hollow eyed stranger’s face looking at her from the mirror. She stared at it, her resolve weakening further. The plan was hopeless, she would return the money.
She started towards her uncle’s room when suddenly her name was called from behind. 'Zarena!'
She stumbled with fright. It was her father!
'Put on a clean robe... your best one. I am taking you to see someone important. Be quick.'
'Yes, Father,' she answered without turning.
Her mind in a whirl, Zarena took a clean robe from the box under the bed and returned to the bathroom to change. After an agonizing few moments of indecision, she transferred the money to the new robe, then covered her hair and part of her face with a blue head cloth.
She stood nervously looking at the floor as her father gave her a brief inspection, then followed him to where a car was waiting on the road. It belonged to a friend of his from the city and, to her dismay, she saw her uncle and cousins were waiting inside it with the driver. Her father opened the back door and she squeezed in beside her cousins.
They drove away, following the bumpy road to Qena, which made her stomach ache even more.
No one spoke to her, or explained where they were going, but from the excited chatter of her cousins she gathered that it was to a football match. But females did not attend football matches.
They stopped at a large, two storey house in Qena and her father ordered her out. She followed him through an iron gate and along a stone path that led around a fountain with a statue of a lion in the centre.
A plump, shiny-faced man in crisp white trousers and a silver and gold embroidered waistcoat was standing beside the open front door. He studied her as he returned her father's deferential greeting, smiling and beckoning them politely inside.
Red and blue rugs were scattered over the white tiled floor, and she took care to avoid them. The tiles felt smooth and cool against her bare feet. The man clapped his hands and a few moments later a delicate, sad-eyed girl a few years older than herself appeared and indicated Zarena was to go with her. The girl led her into the largest kitchen she had ever seen.
Two old women were preparing food, and another girl, as black and shiny as an ebony statue, and about the same age as the first, was sitting at a table repairing a silver bracelet with wire. She gave Zarena a sullen stare before returning to her work. A chair was pushed towards her and Zarena sat down tentatively.
After an awkward silence, the girl repairing the bracelet spoke. ‘Are you the new girl?'
Zarena frowned at her, puzzled.
Both girls stared back, waiting expectantly for her answer. Somewhere outside, she heard the voices of other women talking.
'I don't know what you mean...'
'We heard there was to be a new girl.'
'I am with my father. He is visiting,' Zarena explained.
The two girls exchanged glances.
'Do you... live here?' Zarena asked hesitantly, making conversation.
The black girl looked down at her work and smiled.
The other girl had busied herself with arranging two small cups of minted tea on a tray and did not reply. She left the kitchen with the tray and returned a short while later empty-handed.
'Your father wishes to see you,' she said.
Zarena left the kitchen and walked towards the sound of voices. They were sitting beside a low table sipping at the tea, and she stopped at a respectful distance to wait.
The owner of the house motioned her forward. 'Come closer, my child. Do not be afraid.'
Her father replaced his cup carefully on the tray and stood. 'Sheikh Ghaffar wishes to see you, Zarena.' He sounded unusually happy.
Zarena flinched as he raised his hand to push back her head cloth and uncover her hair. He placed a finger under her chin and raised it. Zarena kept her eyes fixed on the silver tray.
After a short silence, during which her father turned her head slowly from side to side, the Sheikh spoke. 'Yes, you are right, Azim. I believe she is all you say, but a little pale. I trust she is not sickly?’
Her father laughed. 'No, Sheikh. It is only that she has never met anyone of your station before.'
'Very well, if she is willing, I believe we can arrive at a suitable arrangement. She will have a room of her own, and new clothes. Everything she needs will be provided, although I must warn you,' the Sheikh's voice took on a sharp edge. 'I will not tolerate disobedience or laziness'
I assure you, Sheikh, she is neither of those. She will do whatever you ask.'
'On those terms, I agree.'
'When will be a suitable beginning?'
The Sheikh thought for a moment. 'I have guests arriving in a few hours. One in particular, who will be of special interest to you, Azim. A government minister of very high rank. If your daughter, Zarena... a pleasing name... were to be present, it could make our task easier...'
Her father turned to her. 'Sheikh Ghaffar has kindly offered you service in his house, Zarena. You will begin immediately.'
Zarena's feelings of uncertainty and dread became one of almost overwhelming relief. Being a servant in a place such as this, and for a man who was rich and seemed kind, was the answer to all her prayers. She would not have to face her uncle and the misery she had endured in his house, and there would be the companionship of girls her own age. Best of all, she would have a room of her own. An unheard of luxury. It was not an opportunity to miss. 'Yes, Father,' she answered positively. 'I would be very much honored.'
Her father and the Sheikh smiled at her.
She waited in the large kitchen while they continued their talk, watching the Nubian girl in silence as she painstakingly bound the broken bracelet. Then the sad-eyed girl reappeared.
'Come with me,' she said. 'Sheikh Ghaffar has asked that I show you your room and inform you of your duties.'
Zarena followed her up the stairs and along a passage with several doors along one side, each door decorated with a different, beautifully painted picture of a bird on it.
‘How many people live here?' Zarena whispered.
The girl did not answer, instead, she opened a door with a painting of a white swan. 'The bathroom.' she explained. She pulled on a cord hanging from the ceiling and a startling blaze of light flooded the room, revealing a white bath large enough to lie in, and a shower above it with gleaming taps. Below a mirror that occupied most of the wall were two basins and a shelf filled with fancy bottles of soaps and perfumes.
'Use any you like,' the girl said. 'We all share.' She explained which bottles held what, then showed her confused and dumbfounded student how to operate the shower and gleaming white bowl she had first taken to be a toilet without a seat, but which turned out to have a completely different function. Zarena eyed it apprehensively as they left.
She was given the flamingo room. It was second from the end, and had a picture of a pink flamingo on the door. The room was small but luxurious, with a soft looking bed and fluffy pillows. Another of the red and blue patterned rugs covered the floor. Zarena smiled as she looked from the window and over the town.
The girl spoke from behind. 'So you are the new girl.'
'Yes,' Zarena replied, turning to face her, still smiling. 'Are you the Sheikh's daughter? If so, you must give me orders. I will do anything you wish.'
'You think I am his daughter?' The girl looked at her in astonishment, then laughed. 'No I am not a daughter. I suppose I am a servant too. We are all servants. There are no wives or daughters.'
'Who will give me orders then?' Zarena asked, surprised.
'Sheikh Ghaffar will give orders.' She pointed to a large wooden chest beside the bed. 'Inside you will find clothes, some are new, some are old. You can try them if you wish. When you are ready, come to the kitchen. The guests will be arriving soon.'
‘I will be as quick as I can. What must I call you? I am Zarena.'
'Nirjis.' the girl replied. She moved to the door then hesitated, as if about to say more, then she quickened her step and walked out.
Zarena closed the door and swooped on the wooden box. The unpleasant events of the morning were forgotten. Not even the thought of the bleeding or stolen money could dampen her spirits. If she was accused, she would simply deny it, and who could say she was the culprit? It could as easily have been one of her cousins. And who was there to find out about her broken membrane of honor? She was much closer to the station now, and she already had the money for a ticket. If she did not like the work she could run away whenever she wanted to.
The wooden box was a treasure chest of clothing. Everything was there, in a confusing variety of colors and styles, and the quality of the materials was of the very finest. No coarse calico, as her own robe was made of, but fine cottons, silks and satins, even night clothes of sheer silk, some so fine that when she held them to the light she could see all the way through them.
She resisted the temptation to try on all the clothes, unable to believe they could really be for her. She left out a long dress with pretty pink flowers similar to the one Nirjis had been wearing, then she replaced the others neatly in the box.
She took a shower in the glittering bathroom and washed her hair, which had become dusty from the ride in the car, then she brushed her teeth with the special paste provided. Perhaps one of the girls could tell her about the bleeding, which had eased but not stopped. It was a good feeling to know she would have someone her own age to confide in. Making friends with them, she decided, would be her first task.
Not used to perfumes, Zarena left them alone and returned to her room to dress.
Music and laughter from below told her the Sheikh's guests had arrived, and Zarena bounced gaily down the stairs and started briskly towards the kitchen, determined to make a good impression.
The Sheikh and another man were talking together at the front door, and the Sheikh snapped his fingers when he saw her and beckoned her over.
'Excellency, I introduce to you my new girl, Zarena.'
The man came forward and took her hand. He lifted it to his lips and smiled. He was a large man, with a bald head and pointed beard, dressed in a white coat and grey trousers.
'Ah, Medhat, you have done it again. Where do you find such beautiful flowers? A white lotus... I congratulate you.'
Sheikh Ghaffar inclined his head. 'Thank you, Excellency. Shall we join the others?'
Zarena was not used to such attention. She followed awkwardly as the Sheikh led the way to an open courtyard filled with plants and flowers. The air was heavy with the scent of jasmine. Cushions had been scattered on the tiled floor, forming a rough semicircle, and amongst them lounged two other men. Each had a small glass table before him that held a silver plate of snacks and a jug of tej. Nirjis was kneeling before one of the men, giggling as she fed him delicacies from the plate with her fingers. The other man sat alone. They both stood hastily to greet the new arrival, bowing respectfully and smiling, and he returned their greetings politely before settling himself beside a table. He patted a cushion beside him. 'Sit here, my child.'
Sheikh Ghaffar left and a few moments later the music was changed to a tune with a livelier beat. The man sitting alone began to clap in time with the music, and the others joined in enthusiastically.
From behind a cluster of palms, the Nubian girl suddenly appeared and the clapping stopped in anticipation.
She stood before them in a pose of supplication, head back and eyes closed, arms outstretched and legs parted. With her ebony body glistening with oil, she basked in the bright sun flooding the courtyard. A short skirt of colored beads covered her loins, and another her small breasts. A band of silver coins circled her head, and strings of beads hung from it like a veil. Silver bracelets flashed from her arms and ankles.
She appeared motionless, yet the beads and coins quivered against the restraint of the rhythm deep within her. As the tempo of the music quickened, so did the vibrating of the coins, and the bracelets began to jingle. Then, as if unable to contain the rhythm any longer, her hips began to move, sensuously and slowly, and her outstretched arms began to tremble, increasing the volume of the jingling. Her head moved from side to side, swinging the bead veil, and the movement of her hips followed in time, lengthening and thrusting primitively, until her entire body was one sinuous, erotic motion.
She sank slowly to her knees and fell back between her feet, the motion continuing, becoming faster and more abandoned, the bead skirt bouncing high to reveal flashes of scarlet silk. As the throbbing drums reached a crescendo, she stiffened into spasms of ecstasy, then collapsed to lie with her arms outstretched; the breathless heaving of her abdomen the only movement.
The short silence, thick with promise, ended in polite applause from the three men and she sat up slowly. The man who had been alone jumped to his feet and moved towards her.
Zarena sat stunned and silent, her mouth dry. Never had she seen another woman's body so exposed. That she had seen one displayed so erotically, and in the company of men, left her pale with shock and embarrassment. She had been warned by her aunt Hebba never to reveal any part of her body to men, that to do so was a terrible sin, and that women who did were whores and could expect to be punished by Allah.
It was a warning Zarena had been careful to observe. She knew about sex, and knew what effect a woman's body had on men. Her own cousins, who were not yet men, had taught her. She had seen their shadows by the window, trying to look in while she was washing, and several times they had tried to catch her alone as she was feeding the chickens. They knew she would not have the courage to inform her aunt, and had deliberately exposed themselves, taunting her by holding their rigid things between their fingers and waggling them in front of her. She had seen the expression on their faces, even though her body was covered, and without looking, she knew the guest sitting beside her would have the same expression. She could tell by the way he breathed.
'Do you dance, Little Lotus?' he whispered in her ear.
Zarena shook her head, keeping her eyes lowered. 'No, Excellency,' she murmured.
'I shall arrange for you to have lessons.' He drank deeply from the jug of tej, which had remained untouched during the performance, then licked his lips. 'Feed me,' he ordered.
Startled, Zarena looked at the plate with its confusing array of delicacies. They were all strange to her.
'The honeyed meatballs look particularly tempting.'
With trembling fingers she picked up one of the sticky round balls and moved it hesitantly towards his lips. He took her wrist and held it steady while he opened his mouth and took the meatball between his teeth. Still holding her, he swallowed the meatball, then licked and sucked at her fingers, gripping tighter and forcing them deeper into his mouth as she tried to resist.
Zarena watched with revulsion. He had a big mouth with soft rubbery lips that reminded her of a camel. He withdrew her stiffened fingers slowly then, without releasing her wrist, pulled her around so she was sitting between his legs, with her back to him.
'Do not be afraid, ' he breathed in her ear. 'I will not bruise such a delicate young flower.'
He began to lick her ear, putting his wet tongue deep inside and groaning softly, containing her struggles easily by holding her hard against him with an arm firm around her waist.
Terrified and unable to move, Zarena looked around helplessly, hoping the Sheikh would see what was happening and come to her aid, but he was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the Nubian girl and the man she was with.
Nirjis and the other man were almost out of sight behind a planter. All she could see were a protruding pair of hairy legs and the bared knees of Nirjis above the flowers.
Zarena squirmed ineffectually. The man was becoming more demanding, his breathing quick and shallow as he snuffled in her ear. She could feel his thing pressing against her, poking against her buttocks like a stick. The hand that had held her around the waist moved to cover her flat breast, while the other worked her robe up over her knees.
He rubbed his hand up the inside of her legs, forcing them apart, pushing higher, and she stared down at his hand in horror. It was coarse veined and hairy, dark against the paleness of her leg, and it crawled forward purposefully on its fingers like a giant spider, the red stone of his ring glinting like its eye.
It seemed to Zarena that her life was repeating itself. Only the day before it had been her uncle's hand forcing its way between her legs. She had been as helpless then as she was now, but she had been lucky.
Zarena reached for the jug of tej with both hands and swung it back over her head, upending it and bringing it down on the man’s bald skull with a hollow thump.
He fell back with a hoarse cry, both hands leaving her to clutch at his head, and Zarena sprang free as if released from a catapult, knocking over the silver tray, which crashed noisily on the tiled floor. She did not look to see the results of her effort, but lifted her robe clear of her knees and ran.
Her unplanned flight took her automatically to the stairs, and she fled up them as another hoarse bellow echoed through the house.
Zarena did not realize her error until she was at the top of the stairs, and she turned to go back, to run out of the house and away. She started down, but it was too late. The man came into the hall with a cushion pressed to his head, making his way unsteadily to the door. Blood ran down his wet face and onto his white coat.
Sheikh Ghaffer came hurriedly into the hall behind him.
Zarena turned again and raced towards her room. Ahead in the passage, a door was flung open and, as she ran past, a naked man came out.
'Fee eh? What is the matter?' He put out a hand to stop her, catching her sleeve and half spinning her around before she tore free. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of the Nubian girl lying naked on the bed.
Zarena shut her door and searched for the lock, but it had none.
With a stifled cry, she leapt to the window and looked out, hoping to find a way down, but it was a sheer drop onto the stone path. She stepped back quickly when she saw the man and the Sheikh walking towards the gate. A black limousine was parked on the road and the driver climbed out and hurried to meet them.
The Sheikh was clutching at the guest's arm, as if pleading with him, but he pushed the Sheikh angrily aside, and his efforts were reinforced more forcibly by the driver, who put a hand to the Sheikh's chest and pushed him hard, sending him sprawling back into the garden. He scrambled to his feet and watched from the gate as the driver helped the important guest into the back seat then drove away.
The Sheikh stood there until the car had disappeared, then he turned and walked towards the house, his face dark and scowling, and Zarena pulled back hastily.
She could do nothing but wait. She would be beaten, of that she was certain. Either the Sheikh would do it, or he would send for her father. After that, she would be thrown out, maybe sent to prison.
Had she thought of it earlier, she may have had a chance to run down the stairs and out the back while the Sheikh was in the front, but now it was too late. It would not be the first time she had been beaten. She could only hope it would be nothing worse than that.
A full hour passed, and still he did not come, and Zarena began to hope. She had prepared herself for the inevitable, and her body ached with tension. Every sound caused her body to stiffen and her breathing to stop.
Her hair was sticky from the spilled tej, and the sweet smell of it was a constant reminder. Shuddering with revulsion, she used her own saliva on a cloth to wash away the feeling of the wet tongue in her ear, but she could do nothing about her sticky hair.
She changed back to her own clothes and knotted the money into a handkerchief, which she tied on the inside of her robe. Then she sat to wait.
She saw the Sheikh once more from the window as he escorted his remaining two guests from the house, and she thought he would come then, but he did not.
He came much later, when it was dark.
Zarena heard the footsteps in the passage and caught her breath, hoping they would stop before reaching her door, but they came on, and she sat woodenly on the bed and stared at the carpet.
The door opened and he came in, followed by the two old women she had seen earlier in the kitchen. His smooth face showed no anger as he walked past her to the window and looked out. He closed the shutters before turning to face her, flexing a thin cane.
'Hold out your hand,' he ordered.
It shook as she held it out. He laid the cane across her palm to fix his aim. It made a whistling sound as he brought it down across her fingers.
Zarena gasped and snatched her hand back against her body.
'Again… the same hand.'
A crimson welt showed across the fingers, and they twitched in pain and anticipation as he rested the cane on her palm. ‘Hold it still.’
She was unable to hold back a cry as it landed.
He struck her four times on each hand before speaking again, his voice calm, almost polite. 'You have made me very angry,' he said. 'I do not tolerate disobedience. You were warned, were you not?'
'I am sorry,' Zarena cried. 'I did not mean to hit him. He was doing things...'
'I am not interested in your excuses. The minister is an important man. You were to entertain him and do whatever he wished. Now, he will cause me a great deal of trouble.'
'I didn't know!' Zarena wailed. 'I wasn't told...'
Sheikh Ghaffar turned to the two waiting women. 'Tie her to the bed.'
One of the women produced strips of cloth and they set about tying her quickly, ignoring her pleas and overcoming her resistance easily and without being rough. Face down, her legs were spread and her ankles bound to the rail of the bed so her feet hung over, then each arm was outstretched and bound to the corners at the top end.
Spread-eagled, she could not turn or twist, and could not lift up more than a few inches.
'Pull the robe up and lower the pants.'
‘Please… it wasn’t my fault.’
Her robe was pulled to her waist and her buttocks fully exposed.
Sheikh Ghaffer laid his cane across them, then changed his mind. ‘Perhaps not. I do not want her scarred. She is too expensive an investment. 'Replace the pants and leave.'
Her pants were pulled up again and the women left, closing the door.
'Yes, much too expensive,' Sheikh Ghaffar murmured. 'I was a fool.' He laid the cane gently across her covered buttocks, caressing before raising it and bringing it down with a grunt of effort.
Zarena jerked as the pain cut into her. She bit into the blanket.
Sheikh Ghaffar struck her ten times on the buttocks, then moved to the base of the bed and placed the cane carefully on the sole of her left foot.
When the pain came, it was as if she had stood on hot coals. Tears sprang into her eyes and she buried her face deeper into the blanket, clenching it between her teeth.
After a few minutes, the procedure was repeated on her right foot.
'We will have a short rest now,' Sheikh Ghaffar informed, 'then we will start again. It is necessary that you have time to think about obedience. You have been a disappointment to me, Zarena. I treat my girls very well. Everything they need, even money. I give to them only the best class of customer. Important men like the minister. All I ask is that they are obedient and make the customer happy.'
At the beginning of the fourth session, Zarena fainted.
Sheikh Ghaffar waited until she came around, then continued.
She passed out again in the middle of the sixth session, and again in the next, and each time he brought her around by wiping her face gently with a wet cloth.
'Only three more sessions to go,' he consoled her. 'It could be much worse. Sometimes I have to beat the girls so much they are no longer pretty. Then I have to send them to my big house in Cairo where the customers are not so fussy. In two days, when you are better, I have promised another very important man that you will make him happy. If you do not, that is what will happen to you.'
Zarena was not aware of when it ended. When she came around after a faint it was dark and cold, and she was still tied to the bed. Her body burned all over, not only where she had been caned, but also from the cramps in her arms and shoulders. She lay unmoving, fighting the pain, her skin cringing in anticipation at every small sound.
After a long time of lying still the burning changed to throbbing, aching, numbness and cramp, and she could only wonder at the damage done to her body. To fight the pain she tried to think, to figure some way of escaping, but her mind refused, returning again and again to the words of Sheikh Ghaffar as he talked during the terrible waiting periods.
At first, she had been unwilling to believe that her father could sell her, but the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. She had been ignored, ridiculed and treated like a foreigner by her father's family ever since being taken away from her mother. What other reason could he have for keeping her like a prisoner except to take advantage of her good looks and sell her? Perhaps he had not intended to sell her to a brothel. Maybe he had planned to sell her to someone as a wife, but the Sheikh had probably offered more money. And what was the difference to her, anyway?
As the long night wore on and the sounds in the house and on the street quietened, her thoughts became more lurid. She tried to imagine what it was like to be a prostitute; to have different men constantly abusing her body. Mean, ugly men like her uncle. The possibility of it happening filled her with revulsion and despair.
A sound at the door made her jump and begin to quiver all over. She lay quiet, pretending to be asleep as the door opened then closed softly. She heard the whisper of feet on the carpet, then winced as something brushed against her feet.
'Shhh!' The warning was soft but urgent.
Zarena lay still and quiet as first her feet were untied, then her hands. She caught a whiff of jasmine as the person came close, and heard the soft clink of jewellery as the knots were being undone.
With no other sound but the whisper of bare feet and the soft opening and closing of the door, her silent benefactor departed.
With agonizing slowness, Zarena eased her cramped muscles through the first excruciating movements, lifting herself until she was on her knees with her face still buried in the blanket. When the cramps finally eased, she rolled cautiously onto her back and began the painful process of first sitting, then standing.
The sting of her feet touching the rug was almost as bad as the cutting of the cane. She removed two of the flimsy silk garments from the wooden chest and wrapped them around her feet, then rolled on the bed, gathering the strips of cloth with which she had been bound, using them to hold the silk in place. She forced herself through the pain, reminding herself constantly of what would happen to her if she did not escape.
She made herself stand and shuffle around, curling her toes and holding onto the wall, and when she was able to do it on her own without falling or staggering too much, she cautiously opened the door and went out.
The wrappings on her feet kept her movements silent as she shuffled along the dark passage to the stairs. She paused at the top to catch her breath and listen. No sound came from the house and she assumed it must be well after midnight. Slowly, she began the descent.
By the time she reached the heavy front door she was almost exhausted and blinded by tears, and she had to clear them away before she could find the handle. Using both hands, she turned it, but the door would not open.
Close to panic, she pushed and pulled hard, ignoring the pain in her fingers, but the door remained firm. Feverishly, she felt around for a key or a lock, and had almost given up when she found the bolt near the floor. She jerked it up and it clattered noisily, but she was beyond caring. She opened the door and went out.
As she was going through the gate a truck came along the road and she paused to allow it to pass, turning away and shrinking back from the blaze of its lights. She looked up at what had been her window and felt the first exhilarating flush of success.
A movement in the second window along caught her eye and, in the reflected light of the truck, she could see the dark form of someone standing there, looking out, and she froze. Then, in the brief moment before the truck had passed, she saw the raised arm and a flash of silver.
Every wooden bench in the third class carriage was filled to capacity, so the surplus passengers either stood precariously or sat on the floor. The lavatory could not be used as the closet had been filled with excess baggage and the door jammed open. Neither the lights, nor the fans worked, and it was hot and airless. The broken windows allowed some air for those lucky enough to be close to them, but not sufficient to stir the blended stench of tobacco smoke, body odors and exotic food.
To Zarena, it was heaven.
For the first time she felt safe. She lay on the floor half under a bench, squeezed between the greasy bag of a camel herder and the bare feet of a man wearing two ragged jellabas - one apparently used to cover the holes of the other.
The camel herder, a dark-skinned Shilluk with a face stitched across by tribal scars, sat on his canvas tent and scowled threateningly at anyone who looked as if they may want to stretch their legs in his or Zarena's direction. None did. A plaited leather whip bandoleered his broad chest, and to each bulging bicep was strapped a short, but lethal looking dagger.
The old man with two jellabas had been given special dispensation, possibly due to the supply of halva, jam, peanuts and tamarind seeds he dispensed to the herder at regular intervals In the folds of his jellabas he also held concealed a bottle of aragi, on which, in defiance of Sharia law, they both sipped in turn.
The Shilluk had been walking along the rail embankment and had stopped to adjust his heavy load when he heard strange noises coming from the rusted remains of an old water tank below. Investigating, he found Zarena lying amongst the weeds, making whimpering sounds in her sleep.
'Enta kweiss?' he had queried, prodding her with a foot. 'Are you well?'
Startled awake, Zarena had edged farther back into her shelter.
'Why are the feets?' he demanded in heavily accented Arabic. Before she could answer, he asked a further question. ' Is you English?'
Zarena shook her head, then hesitantly tried to explain. It took a long time, for she had to speak slowly and make it up as she went, and she was not sure of his threatening presence. She told him a mad uncle had stolen her from her family in Alexandria, and when she had tried to run away he had beaten her on the feet to prevent her trying again. But she had anyway, and now she was returning home.
To further engage his sympathy, she showed him her swollen hands and, scowling, he squatted to examine them, and also her feet. Without comment, he left to climb the embankment and search through his bag. He returned with a tin of evil-smelling grease. ‘Good for camel feets,' he explained.
After washing her feet and hands with water from a leather canteen, he smeared his grease on the cuts with surprising gentleness. He discarded the soiled rags and produced a heavy pair of woolen socks from his bag to take their place.
'You want train?' he asked.
She nodded, and he picked her up and slung her belly down over his shoulder, solving the additional load problem by balancing the tent on his head and carrying the bag in his spare hand.
At the station, he deposited her in the shade with his baggage and, after she had given him the money for her ticket, he stood in the queue.
Aware of her pale skin, Zarena surprised a passing woman by offering ten piasters for her black shawl, which she then used to cover her hair and face. With the socks hiding her feet and her hands tucked out of sight, she felt better.
The Shilluk spent the afternoon dozing like everyone else, leaving Zarena to fidget and squirm uncomfortably on the hard ground as she tried to ease each tortured area of her body in turn; a task made no easier by her not being able to sit.
At dusk, shortly before the train was due to arrive, two policemen sauntered through the crowd, and Zarena curled up close to her sleeping companion as though she belonged to him, pretending sleep herself, and was relieved when he didn’t move and the policemen didn’t stop.
The Shilluk carried her onto the train, clearing a passage by simply shoving everyone aside with his bag. He placed her on a hastily vacated bench, but she moved to the floor where she could lie down, giving her place to the man with two jellabas.
The camel herder left the train at El Minya, where he was to pick up some camels and take them across the desert to a trader at Ras Charib. She could come with him, he offered and, after he had delivered the camels, she could become his wife. Then they would find her mad uncle and cut his throat. He demonstrated how this could be done with one of his knives, and the old man nodded vigorously in agreement. He seemed very impressed with the Shilluk, and looked the more disappointed of the two when Zarena politely declined the offer, saying she had a sick mother to look after.
Her would-be suitor removed one of the socks to show the old man her foot, and gave terse instructions as to her welfare. He transferred some of the grease in his tin to an empty cigarette packet and ordered her to put more on the next day. Scowling, he hoisted his baggage and left without looking back.
The old man fed her with the bitter tamarind seeds all the way to Cairo, then helped her off the train and through the crowd to the ticket office, where she bought another third class ticket for the short journey to Alexandria.
She arrived at the coastal city early in the afternoon and, with less than a pound of her uncle’s money remaining, immediately set about finding the Greek family with whom she and her mother had stayed.
But the city looked different. It had been five years, and she had been too young then to take an interest in what direction they had been going. To make it more difficult, she could not remember the name of the family, only that it was a complicated one, and that they had worked each day at a Greek café, which they owned.
By nightfall, Zarena had still not found one she recognized, and walking had become difficult. The socks had worn through and her feet were sore and swollen. From a waste bin behind a shop she found some rags to reinforce the socks, then found a place to sleep between two palm trees on the edge of a small square. Several peddlers were already camped there with their carts, but she was far enough away from them not to be accosted, yet still close enough for comfort, and she already looked like an old beggar woman with her rags and shuffling walk. If anyone spoke to her, she would cough as though sick and pretend not to understand.
Next morning she bought a pair of cheap plastic sandals from one of the peddlers and discarded the socks after bathing her feet in the sea. Although dark with bruising, they no longer bled and the swelling had receded. Another few precious piasters went on a thimble of bitter coffee and some bread, and her good spirits returned.
The seafront brought back memories of a walk with the old Greek man. He had brought her there for her first look at the sea, and she sat on the breakwater trying to remember more details. She had called him a special name. Papa something. A short, funny name, and she went through the alphabet trying to jog her memory, but the name would not come. He had a black moustache, she recalled, which he twisted in his fingers, and long, thin hair on his head, which he brushed in a strange way. He had told her the moustache was not real, but was really the wings of a dead swallow he had found on the road, and that his hair was not hair either, but a piece of fishing net he had found on the beach, and which he had glued on his head to make it look like hair.
A brass plaque caught her attention as she walked back along the breakwater. On it were the names of the builders, mostly foreign, and she recognized one as being a French name. Bontoux. She said the word aloud as she continued on. It had a nice sound, and she needed a new name. That would be it, she decided, until she could find out what her mother’s name had been.
Later in the day she found the market square where she had been taken from her mother. The carts, the donkeys and the pyramids of fruit all looked the same, and the road was still full of yellow taxis.
Excited, she attempted to retrace her steps of that fateful day. It had not been a long walk. But although she examined every building carefully in every direction, none appeared familiar. She continued searching until dark, then disheartened, bought an orange and returned to her sleeping place.
When the next day also proved unsuccessful, Zarena gave up the search. She needed food, and started thinking about finding work, but to find work she would first have to wash. Her Shamma, day robe, was dirty and her hair sticky, with the smell of sour tej. When she saw a group of women doing laundry at a canal, she offered to help in exchange for the loan of a robe while she washed her own, and that night used more newspapers and a broken cardboard box to protect it from the dirt.
Early next morning, as the Muezzins were calling to the faithful over their crackling loudspeakers, she was already on the street. A cheap comb purchased from the same peddler she had bought the sandals brought some order to her curls, and the shawl she tied around her waist to make a skirt over the Shamma.
She started with the cafes, still with the hope of finding the Greek family, but did not limit herself to Greek ones only. And she also tried the large restaurants, where she thought she would have more chance of finding work in the kitchens.
At the fourth restaurant, a lavish Greek one in a modern plaza, she found the two statues. She had forgotten about them.
They stood in the entrance, either side of a doorway with imposing columns, and she recognized them instantly. They were of two black women in ancient Egyptian costume, each with one leg placed slightly in front of the other, as if walking, and each had one hand holding up a tray filled with flowers. She stared at them, her memory struggling.
The question was delivered by a young waiter with a white shirt and black bow tie, and his eyebrows remained elevated in query, obviously not mistaking her for a customer.
'The statues,' Zarena said. 'I remember them.'
‘What?’ He looked at the statues in surprise, then returned his attention to Zarena, slowly inspecting.
'I'm looking for kitchen work,’ Zarena said. ‘I’ve done it before, and don’t mind working only for food…'
He shook his head. 'We don't need anyone.'
Zarena stood for a few moments longer, coming to the conclusion the statues had either been sold to new owners, or were not the same ones she remembered.
She strolled along the glass front of the restaurant, looking in. It was still too early for customers. All the tables were empty except one, at which an old man with glasses was sitting, reading a newspaper, and Zarena stopped. His hair was grey, and so was his moustache, but it was thick and curled upwards like the wings of a bird, and his sparse hair was brushed over his bald scalp in thin strands. He looked up and saw her standing there, staring in, and nodded a greeting before returning to his paper, and Zarena gasped as the name suddenly popped into her head. Papa Zoupo.
Had her feet allowed it, she would have run.
Hobbling as fast as she could, she returned to the door and went boldly in past the surprised waiter.
He came after and caught her by the arm. 'Hey…I told you no work here!'
Zarena jerked her arm free and continued on to where the old man was sitting. He had looked up when the waiter called out, and was now watching curiously over the top of his glasses.
‘She wants work,' the waiter explained. ‘I already told her no.'
The old man raised his hand to stop the waiter, not taking his eyes off Zarena, waiting for her to speak.
Zarena looked down at him. To her dismay, her entire body, even her mouth, began trembling.
The old man lowered his hand, a look of concern beginning to form on his face.
At mention of the name the old man removed his glasses and sat forward to peer at her, frowning, then his eyes widened. 'Ohi... surely, it cannot be…’
'I'm... do you… remember me?'
He stood up. ‘I do not believe it. Zarena… little Zarena?'
She nodded, sniffing loudly.
He came around the table with a broad smile, holding out his arms. 'What's the matter, Zarena... you crying because you don't want to give Papa Zoupo a little hug and a kiss?'
The smell of him as he held her close was the sweetest she had known.
He sat her down, then gave her one of the crisp white table napkins to blow her nose on while he went to telephone Mama at home with the news.
She came a short while later in a yellow taxi.
Round-faced and buxom, she ran into the restaurant with her large bosoms bouncing and dragged Zarena into them.
When the tears had been wiped away with more napkins, she examined Zarena at arm’s length.
'Look, Papa... bones... nothing but bones.' She called to the waiter. 'Nicky! Bring some food for Zarena. Cakes with cream… and coffee.’ She clasped Zarena's hand tightly in both of hers and responded to her wince of pain with a cry of concern. 'Dear God, Papa.’ she murmured as she turned over the hand in hers. ‘Look at the girls fingers...’
She examined the other one then sat down. 'Come, my dear,' she invited. ‘Tell me and Papa what has happened. We want to know everything... don't we Papa?'
Years of holding back, of having no one to confide in. Years of uncertainty and fear. It came in a flood.
So did the tears. When she had finished, Papa Zoupo was so angry he was unable to keep still. He walked to the entrance and stood there for a long time with his hands in his pockets, looking out. When he returned, he spoke with quiet resolve.
'Take her home, Mama. Take Zarena home and look after her. Call a doctor to look. She will stay with us now… for as long as she wants.'
Stern-faced, he gathered the pile of soiled napkins and went through to the kitchen.