He Get Too Quickly (Short Story)
Published in Overland.
Maybe it was the hash I had smoked back in Cairo, but when I woke from heavy dreams the train was in free fall. Plunging like a dagger towards the heart of upper Egypt, home of the dark- skinned people, necropolis of the Pharaohs. The Nile a black glass curtain to one side, reflecting the crescent moon, blurred through palm trees and power poles. The Sahara blue, undulating on the other. A vast, infernal ocean.
I was barely in contact with the train. My shirt hung damply at my back, backside numb against the slatted seat. Zero gravity situation. Heart pounding in time with the engine.
The train was nearing terminal velocity as it approached Luxor. Starkly lit villages flashed by, disappearing upwards towards the horizon. I held a wet bandanna over my face against the eyeball-peeling heat and dust blasting through the glassless windows.
And then the cramps reappeared, twisting and torturing my intestines, cold sheen of sweat on my face. I rolled my head upwards. Backpack straps swinging on luggage rack, crates of limes and chickens, cheap cardboard suitcases all in motion. Boy asleep on one rack, arm swinging limply, head nodding. I pushed myself to my feet and climbed the aisle towards the stinking cubicle at the rear of the carriage, pulling myself up between the seat backs past jolting, rocking people. The chubby matron and the skinny brown children with whom I had shared my water supply. Who had offered me chicken and rice on sheets of newspaper. The crew cut and acned soldiers in faded green fatigues , pulverized cigarette ends under their boots. The leathery old man in the filthy gellabia who had jabbered at me for half an hour in Arabic, his mouth a red rimmed hole with one long, ivory tooth a sentinel at the entrance. Who was now nodding on to his chest, a string of saliva over his gray stubbled chin.
I held my breath and closed the flimsy door. Pain and necessity overcame disgust as I squatted over the faeces- encrusted hole and voided explosively over the strobing railway ties below. I exhaled, my head spinning, and balanced with difficulty on the balls of my feet, bracing myself with fingertips against one grimy wall, using my other hand to keep my shorts safe at knee level.
The brakes went on. My outstretched arm was against the wrong wall. Inertia struck. My shoulder hit the opposite wall at the same time as my swinging camera. The door swung open and banged shut repeatedly. I stood up too quickly and everything started to turn black. I fell forward and grabbed wildly for the window ledge. Fingers and chin on ledge, trouser- bound feet still planted on the ridged footplates of the toilet. Body rigid at forty five degrees, genitals and camera in synchronized motion. The train jerked and screeched to a halt and gave one final heave backwards. The toilet door slammed shut again and I could hear passengers scrambling about the carriage, already forming a frantic scrum against the people on the platform fighting to get on. I grabbed a lungful of blast furnace heat and dust and opened my eyes.
On the platform, a dusky youth in a striped gellabia and improbably clumpy shoes grinned white teeth and gave me a Cleopatra cigarette.
"My name is Jamal. Welcome to Luxor. You need hotel?"
I followed him through dusty streets harshly illuminated by bare bulbs in shop doorways. People walked in the relative cool of the evening. Veiled women with dark, secret eyes, young men in cotton pants and sports shirts. Old men lingered in cafes, contemplative over glasses of tea and narghile. Smells of spices and animals and stagnant water shared the air with the tinny wail of cheap radios.
"My family has very nice hotel. Very comfortable."
"You have a fridge?"
"Fridge, yes. Very big. Very cold."
"Full of nice cold beers?"
We reached Television Street, a narrow, rutted alley of half finished buildings. Some had got as far as the fourth floor before the money had run out and the fourth floor had become the roof, with stairs leading up to the clear sky. The raw concrete was still hot from the searing sun, bare reinforcement bars crookedly protruding like broken strings of instruments.
"Come. This way."
Kicking my sandals off at the top of the concrete steps, cool terrazzo floor on tortured soles.
"Sure. My own room, right?" I'd had it with dormitories.
"Yes. You come. I show you."
Through the kitchen, Jamal pointing out the large antique refrigerator and pausing to put a dented saucepan of water on the stove. Lighting the gas with a loud "woof."
My room had two small single beds and two sets of bunks.
"You choose any bed. Sleep anywhere. No one else here."
"And the bathroom?"
I got the tour. At least it was clean. With a Western toilet bowl.
"You American?" he asked.
"There is American staying in our hotel. Come."
He led me to the American's room as if he were going to show me an illicitly stashed mummy in the linen closet.
"Here," he said proudly as he swung open the door without knocking.
The room was a small one and smelled of deodorant and ripe socks. A pair of which adhered to the generous feet of the American, who waved languidly from his bed. He had been reading a paperback held at an awkward angle above his head, and had one hairy leg loosely crossed over the other knee. I could see his balls up the leg of his shorts. He extended his hand and we exchanged names. He was putting himself through law school, travelling to give himself some insight into international law. I was being government subsidised through an archaeology dgree.
"Don't let him charge you more than four a night," he whispered.
There was no one else in Jamal's cousin's restaurant. I sat outside and ate kofte kebab and rice and hummus and slapped at mosquitoes. The soft breeze from the Nile was enough to sway the slender palms and sweet, heavy dates started to fall around me, each hitting the baked earth with a sugary thud.
I leaned back and stretched and breathed in the warm, heady air.
I was in bed, trying to write a letter to Susan, images of Cairo scratching their way across the sweat stained airmail pad. The pyramids rising pure and mountainous above the trashy outgrowths of the city. Night in the youth hostel, gray, stark and penal, tossing on the iron bunk in the stifling basement dormitory. The Norwegian below me begging for insect repellant, almost in tears with the torment, blood black mosquito smears on the white sheets. In the museum, the small, serene face of the boy king preserved in gold forever.
What I could never describe to her was how much I missed her.
"Who you writing to?"
It was Jamal.
I was naked under a single sheet, still damp from my shower. I turned over.
"Is she pretty?"
"Aren't you sleeping on the roof tonight?"
"No. Too cold. More comfortable here."
He pulled off his gellabia and slipped into the second single bed. He leaned up on one elbow.
"You smoke hash?"
He reached into his discarded garment and fished out a pungent nugget of black hashish. As he broke open a cigarette with a long thumbnail and proceeded to methodically roll a joint, I tried to work out what it was that he wanted from me.
He lit the joint, took a hit and passed it to me. I inhaled deeply, the sweet harshness tearing at my dry throat. Visions of Susan flitted through my mind like winged insects.
I exhaled, opened my eyes again and smiled.
"I have English girlfriend last summer." said Jamal. "Very good."
He made a fist with his thumb between the index and middle fingers.
"Very good," he grinned.
We finished the joint. I lay on my back, watching the broken fan not going round. Creatures of negative mass bounced around the ceiling. Pain was starting to gnaw again like rats at my lower intestine.
Jamal spoke again.
"You know," he confided, "There is difference between man from Upper Egypt and man from Lower Egypt."
"No," I replied. "I didn't know that."
All the mass in my body had drifted to my head and as a result the bed was starting to tip imperceptibly backwards. I was on the edge of sleep but someone had a tight hold on my innards and kept pulling me back.
"Yes," he continued. "There is difference."
"You know, man from Lower Egypt, when he make fuck, he lasts long time, you understand?"
I could hear the springs creak as he mimed the motions.
"But man from Upper Egypt, he get too quickly. He is different, has special penniz."
"Yes. I think it is the heat."
"I'll buy that."
I was still wondering what exactly he was trying to sell me when another cramp gripped me and I leaped out of bed and sprinted naked to the toilet.
The American and I were walking through the immense hypostyle hall of the Temple of Thebes. Viscous heat filled the spaces between the fat, closely spaced columns and pressed down on our heads. I squinted up at the toiling sun. Where there had once been a roof to echo the sounds of the procession of the slave-borne god-kings. Filtered light in solid beams through high clerestory windows, whorls of smoke and dust. Heavy aromas of incense and perfumed oils. Brown skinned Nubian slaves fanning the pale, aquiline faces of the Nobles, sounds of flutes and stringed instruments. A multitude of vivid color now bleached and faded over millennia.
"He's after your English ass," said the American.
"He's just a kid," I said. "Showing off. It doesn't mean anything. Look, see how the color has stayed on the underside of that lintel where it's been in shadow. That's over four thousand years old. No one has figured out yet how they mixed their colors to last so long."
"I'm telling you, man, he's got the hots for you. It's a way of life in these Arab countries. That's some pretty bizarre shit he was going over last night. And you're just leading him on, running around with your penniz wagging about for all to see."
"I didn't have time to grab anything. It's no big deal."
"I think you should talk to Saeed about it."
Jamal's older brother ran the hotel in the summer. Responsible young man with Western clothes and university English. The American approved of him. Jamal, he said, was just a waster. Like all the other sleepy Arabs dozing away the blistering afternoons in shop doorways and concrete drainage pipes, or playing backgammon over sweet mint tea in murky cafes. Who lived on top of an archaeological treasure trove and treated it like fucking furniture.
I woke up early from fitful bouts of dream drenched sleep interrupted by sudden and frequent dysenteric sprints to the toilet. The first alarm call was the spiralling wail of the muezzin at four o'clock. Then, as the dawn approached, the hoarse crow of a rooster heralded the surreal cacophony of howls, brays and bleating noises which tailed off raggedly in deference to the entrance of Ra, God of the Sun.
I tried, as usual, to steal some precious moments of sleep but it was already too hot and the Germans who had shared the room with me that night were up and organizing.
Instead I pulled on my shorts and swung my legs out of bed, checking my money belt and scratching reflexively at some fresh mosquito bites. I wandered out to the fridge, opening the door and stretching my hands out to its comforting coolness.
Breakfast was served by a yawning Jamal who had spent the night on the roof with his brothers. The congealing plate of purplish fava beans made my insides growl.
"I have a bad stomach," I said. "I can't eat beans."
Jamal disappeared and returned with a bottle of 7-UP.
"You drink," he instructed. "Very good for stomach."
I had heard of some interesting tombs in the Valley of the Nobles. The American was not interested.
"I'm beat," he said. "I'm going to hang out here for the day, maybe catch up on some postcards. You go play Howard Carver if you want."
"Don't play with your penniz too much."
It was crazy to travel in Egypt in August. When the Hiltons and Sheratons lay empty, lizards scuttling across their dry fountains. The guardians and Tourist Police asleep in the shade of the ancient stones, apathetic in the sandbagging heat. While the Saharan wind blew dust and desolation across the vast temple complexes. I would sit alone there, ears singing with the silence, absorbing the monstrous beauty.
It was crazy to be pedalling a wobbly rented bicycle through the shimmering furnace of the Nile Valley, carrying a back pack filled with bottled water, camera equipment, sketchbooks, archaeological guides and toilet paper. But that's what I was doing. Maybe I was trying to test myself myself. It seemed to be working.
I stopped and opened the litre of Evian I had frozen solid in Jamal's fridge. Tipping the now tepid water into my parched mouth and over the top of my baked head. I studied the map and squinted around the ramshackle collection of hovels and outhouses. An impermanent collage of baked earth blocks, palm fronds and sheet metal. The sprawled out dogs and the lines of desiccated washing were the only signs of habitation.
I was in the Valley of the Nobles.
The guardian swung open the heavy steel door, lit a hurricane lamp and handed it to me. He wasn't going down those steps. I started down into the black void, clutching the worn rope which served as a handrail. The steps were narrow and smooth from generations of intruders. I removed my sandals and stepped sideways, bowing my head, scraping vertebrae on the hewn rock. The weight of countless layers of civilization bearing down on me.
The walls and ceiling of the chamber were covered in vines. Sinuous tendrils snaking across the ceiling and cascading down the walls. Bunches of voluptuous purple grapes dripping sensuously from the rock on which they were painted. Like the sweat that was now condensing on my skin in the cool humidity. Running in rivulets down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Streaming down my dusty legs, bare feet making sticky footprints on the packed dirt floor. As if my host was anointing me with his three thousand year vintage.
"Did he say he wanted to fuck you?"
Saeed was being polite but stern. Serious allegations had been made. Jamal was sulking at the kitchen table. The American stood against the sink, picking at a bunch of wet, pea sized grapes. They all looked in my direction when I came in. I looked at the American. He shrugged.
"No," I said. "He didn't."
"See-" said Jamal "I was telling him difference between man from Upper Egypt and man from Lower Egypt-" He pointed at me.
"-Why you tell my brother these lies?"
"I didn't tell him anything," I said. "Who told you this, Saeed?" I shot another look at the culprit, who was spitting seeds into the sink.
"You should tell this guy, Saeed," said the American, "Not to talk like this to your guests. Egyptians are very fine people. He gives the wrong impression. He makes your family look bad. People misinterpret..."
Jamal and Saeed had a heated exchange in Arabic. Jamal shamefully turned his head away.
"Look," I said to Saeed, "He's young. He didn't mean any harm. I was not offended."
I extended a hand to Jamal. "No hard feelings?"
Jamal took my hand under instruction from Saeed. Avoiding my eye. He turned away and disappeared up the stairs.
Saeed offered his apologies. I said it was nothing. I was dog tired and my bowels were in turmoil. I adjourned to the bathroom.
I ran into the American at dinner but sat at a different table from his in the small, brightly lit restaurant. Doing my best to ignore him as I scooped up rice and lentils and drank cool water from an aluminium beaker.
He was joking around with some locals, teenage boys eager to improve their English and hang out with an American. He was drawing a diagram to show them the parts of the body, labelling them with arrows one by one. Arms. Legs. Finishing up inevitably with grotesque caricatures of the nether regions. Dick. Balls. Ass. Laughing and smoking cigarettes, the boys' teeth white and irregular. Until the American said seriously, "These are not good words. You should not learn them."
And he crumpled up the drawing and shoved it in his pocket. As he got up he looked over as if to speak to me, then awkwardly turned away and left. I watched his ridiculous high- tops disappear up the crowded street.
I pulled up my shorts, shivering. It was getting worse. I would have to see a doctor. I had not slept. God knows what time it was. The final spasms still ran through me and my head was throbbing. I flushed and left the bathroom, heading for the dark kitchen for cool water and ice on my forehead.
He was there when I turned around from the fridge. I froze with shock. Jamal stood tall in front of me. He was naked apart from a pair of faded blue shorts, his dark torso sculpted in the light from the refrigerator. We stood still, facing each other. His eyes never leaving mine, burning right through me. The rest of his face a mask. The only sound was the running water from the refilling toilet tank. He turned around and walked away, his back straight and proud.
Even before the northbound train ground to a halt at Luxor station, frenzied travelers were flinging themselves in through the windows, bags and suitcases held before them. I was suddenly swept up in the rush of the crowd on the platform, weakly fighting to stay upright and keep possession of my pack. My sandalled feet mashed by heavy shoes and army boots. Rancid breath filling my nostrils, harsh chin stubble scraping my own fluffy growth. Flecks of spit on my face. An eternity of sweaty pushing and swaying before everyone that was going to had either wedged themselves into a carriage or onto the roof. I found myself squashed into the end of a compartment, near the toilet cubicle. Which was comforting. The train lurched forward and I lost my balance into the crowd, people behind me starting to force me to the floor. I panicked, all elbows and knees, until equilibrium was regained. I couldn't breathe. My face became numb. Lights dancing, flickering, head spinning, down, down... One last ounce of resource. I mimed vomiting and thrashed my way towards the open window. The crowd parted like I was Moses and I stuck my head out into the rushing desert air. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and passed me two blister packed tablets. I washed them down with lukewarm water from my canteen.
I tried to sleep standing up, wedged into a corner of the bouncing carriage. It was late afternoon, and I could see the broad expanse of the Nile, sunlight dancing and sparkling on its jeweled waters. The faluccas, sails as white as egrets, slicing through the current. Men and women at work in the green, fertile flood plain, tending strips of maize and beans. Lazy water buffalo wallowing in irrigation ditches.
I was thinking of Susan, how it would feel to see her again. But every time I closed my eyes all I could see was Jamal's face. His eyes as black as Nubia, as deep as the tombs of the Pharaohs.