E. B. Brun is a poet and author of fiction. She was a former ballet dancer in Brussels and New York and now lives by her pen.
On this day he had consciously chosen to walk in the opposite direction of Karnak. His route took him north-east on Kornish Al Nile, which was amply tree-lined and lending him a clear view of the Nile to his left. Without having any firm direction in mind he turned right on to Mahbad Al Karnak, where he could see Luxor Temple up ahead. He noticed a small park area on his right and a café within its grounds so he took another right where its entrance could be found just yards ahead. It was a Bedouin tent-style café, in a sort of courtyard where tables and chairs were laid out, with large plant pots housing small evergreen trees. As he entered, there was a strong smell of coffee and cardamom on the air and, barely underlying, the subtle odour of kif. The staccato sound of a tabla came from somewhere adjacent, tapping methodical patterns above the transient cartage. Some men were seated on chairs, others on portions of reed matting on the floor. Most of them were plain-clothed but others wore linen thobes or burouses with either turbans or chechias on their heads, which Kit thought lent the scene uniformity.
He ordered a coffee and cream and sat at a small table in the shade with a spectacular view of the temple. His thoughts took an inward turn. His state of mind was remediable and he thought of Katherine; nothing of substance, more an abstract thought of relative value. Then a very brief fear spoke; he listened and acknowledged it was fear of change. Fear of an end. He shelved it and the idea elated him. Then it occurred to him that rather than resist any imminent change he would make an effort to ease the tension between them by allowing the transition to occur naturally in the passage of time. And should Katherine be the one to fuel it, he would become flexible and simply submit to her will, for he saw no purpose in denying her happiness.
But for him it was more the object of time itself that bothered him. He was now the age his father had been when he had disappeared and this gave him the stark observation of how fleeting time is. He was conscious of their having made a near fatal error in assuming time was non-existent from one year to the next. Neither of them ever really achieving anything of value.
He watched the horse and carriages pass by and the people became amorphous patterns of colour as he let his mind wander aimlessly while drinking his coffee. Normally coffee would accelerate his pulse to an irregular degree but here he noticed, rather than stimulate, it had had an adverse effect to an almost dulling result, and he wondered whether the coffee had been infused with kif but discounted the idea straight off.
As he was sitting there, a young thin man wearing a shabby thobe sauntered in and went directly to the coffee bar where he began conversing with the owner. He took out an Egyptian banknote from deep within his robe and while holding it out in his hand began a sort of mild protest as he became more and more animated. The owner appeared sedate and unmoved by him and just nodded and shooed him away, so the man plunged the note back into the recesses of his robe and started off, looking suitably forlorn. The customers seated on the floor seemed mildly troubled by the event and talked amongst themselves in low tones. At that moment, the man made eye contact with Kit and started walking towards him with a direct glower. As he drew nearer, the glower dropped into a benevolent friendly guise and he at once began speaking to Kit in English.
Excuse me, sir, he said politely. I notice you were entertained by the dispute I have with the owner.
Not knowing which direction to steer the dialogue, Kit resorted to politeness, particularly as he found the man oddly direct. No, not really, he answered. I think you’ll find the attention to the matter was pretty universal.
Yes, everyone in the garden here.
Ah, everyone, he said nodding in coherence. Well, let me explain to you why I was upset with this gentleman.
You really don’t need to explain yourself to me, replied Kit plainly. Whatever has gone on between you and the owner is none of my business.
But I want to explain, said the man persistently, and perhaps you can help.
Kit just looked at him with no expression to interpret.
I was in here for coffee, he began, about one hour ago and I pay for my coffee with two hundred gineih. This banknote, you understand, was the only money I carry as I not like to carry too much on me. The man then dove his hands into the pockets of his robe and pulled each of them inside out to reveal empty pockets, save for the note he had disputed with earlier. And, as you see, he said referring to his pockets, I have no wallet.
Kit started to feel uncomfortable with the direction this was leading and sighed a little impatiently. Now, said the man evasively, I am sure you know, as you have purchase a coffee yourself that I pay no more than twenty gineih for espresso. Do you agree?
Kit gave no answer.
By my calculation I should have been given one hundred eighty in change from two hundred note. Yes?
Then here the man waited expectantly for an answer from Kit, at which he gave an impassive reply: That sounds right.
Okay, said the man, placing his right hand on Kit’s shoulder, which irritated Kit immeasurably. By this time, everyone in the garden had fallen silent, as if to anticipate the next move. The man continued: Let me show you the gineih this man give me, and he gestured at the owner furiously then held the banknote for Kit to examine. What this gineih read? he asked abruptly.
One hundred, answered Kit a little nettled now.
Exactly! said the man defensively. Then I am owed eighty.
Kit was starting to lose composure and was anxious to hurry things along so he could be left alone and return to his coffee, so in a mild state of intolerance he said: Look, how is it you think I can help?
I explain, said the man vaguely. This man, the owner, refuse to give me my change and he say that I give him exact money when I pay for the coffee, which I know is a lie! And now he accuse me of trying to cheat him with my story, which I not do! This terrible for me because now I not have enough money to buy medicine for my sick child and I not know what to do. So, you understand my difficulty, sir? The man now appeared very distraught and continued to stress to Kit how expensive medicine can be and how he was struggling to find regular work, and by this stage Kit was beginning to feel sorry for the man and thought perhaps he might have misinterpreted his behaviour, so he responded in the only way he knew best to resolve the situation quickly.
Would it help you, said Kit sympathetically, if I compensated your losses?
Losses? asked the man.
Yes. You say you are owed eighty gineih from the owner?
Then allow me to give you what you have lost. It makes no odds to me.
At this, the man’s face brightened considerably, and he extended his hand in gratitude. Thank you, thank you, exclaimed the man with excitement. You very kind. Shukran! Shukran! and he was bowing with great enthusiasm and shaking Kit’s hand vigorously. Although Kit was flattered by the man’s display of appreciation, he felt for some reason simultaneously disquieted by it. Something in his intuition warned him, but despite this he lent it no stock and ignored it. Kit then stood up to fish in his trouser pockets for the small gelt of notes he knew to be there, and as he unfolded the roll to count the sum conceded upon, the man snatched the banknotes from his hand and bolted out the café at high speed.