‘Good morning, miss.’
She ducked to conceal the pitying look on her face behind her enormous computer screen. The young man had made a habit of greeting her every time he came past her office, his face plastered with a naive grin that she always imagined was about to produce an involuntary dribble of saliva. But this only ever happened in her mind. On his first day on the cleaning team she noticed he had one shoulder higher than the other; he also dragged his right foot as he walked. He was disabled not only in body but in tongue also. And yet, though he couldn’t pronounce all the letters correctly, he swore profusely and colourfully, provoking laughter from those around him, who pitied him and did not want to hurt his feelings.
One day he limped into her office with his usual smile and asked her to translate some personal documents from Hebrew into Arabic for him. She asked him to take a seat while she finished off a piece of work and said she’d help him immediately afterwards. She left the office briefly to get some tasks done, then returned to find the cleaner standing lopsidedly outside, glowering. She asked him what had happened; he didn’t reply. The secretary, an Israeli woman, hurried over to tell her that the manager didn’t want him in the office and had asked him to leave.
She frowned in resentment and asked the cleaner to take a seat in the office once again. He sat down, nervous he was causing trouble.
Meanwhile the secretary had hurried to the manager to tell him what she had done. He came straight to the office and ordered the cleaner to leave at once. She leapt to her feet. ‘What’s it got to do with you whether he sits here or not?’ she said indignantly. ‘He asked me to help him with something and he’ll leave when I’ve finished!’
But the manager told him again to leave, this time shouting. Afterwards she was so frustrated she could feel her body trembling and her chest heaving at the pointless injustice of it. The whole time she’d worked there she’d turned a blind eye to the obnoxious racism, directed at the Palestinian staff, by their manager, who was a hardline Zionist.
She went home that day filled with dark thoughts of vitriol and rage, cursing the occupation and feeling frustrated and powerless. She recounted the story about the cleaner to her mother, then her to husband, then to her friends, and to herself, thousands of times, to demonstrate the ugly bigotry of the Israeli occupiers. ‘Is a disabled cleaner not good enough to sit in an office?,’ she asked rhetorically each time she told the story. ‘And why is he not good enough—is it his disability, his job or his race?’
The event marked her for a long time, and after it she got into the habit of returning the man’s morning greeting and childlike grin, no longer trying to hide behind the computer. Correspondingly, his requests for her help—first with translation, then printing—increased, to the point she might has well have been his personal secretary, since she couldn’t say no to his requests: with her gallant defence of him against the manager, she had placed herself squarely in the role of hero.
One morning she was sitting as usual in her office, drinking a cup of tea and eavesdropping on the endless conversations which the secretary conducted with the other employees and, by phone, with her mother and various relations who were seemingly scattered across all six continents. After one of these morning phone calls the secretary came over to inform her that the cleaner had two wives; she’d heard it from one of the other employees. ‘It has to be a joke,’ she commented. ‘I doubt the guy could get married full stop, let alone twice.’
She waited for the cleaner to come past on his daily round, having decided there and then to broach this personal subject with him. So far she’d always kept her curiosity about his personal life in check, keen to preserve that distance which imposed a certain mutual respect, and perhaps also to protect her own privacy from his tongue, capable as it was of carrying news to all the employees in the office. But now, when he arrived at her office, she burst out immediately: ‘People in the office are saying you have two wives. Is it true?’
The young man grinned his naive grin. ‘Sure,’ he replied. ‘I have two wives, and one child by each.’ This time she really did see a line of saliva trickling from his mouth as he spoke.
‘And do they both live with you in the same house?,’ she asked.
He laughed. ‘No. My building has two floors. Each wife has her own flat and I divide the week between them. On Saturdays I spend my day off on the roof.’
She couldn’t tell if she was just smiling naively back at him, or if she really was naive, having submitted to a full year of being treated as his personal secretary, and taken on a sense of heroism entirely of her own accord. She wiped away the drip of saliva that was forming at the corner of her mouth and ducked back behind the computer screen, the conversation with the cleaner still buzzing around her like a fly.
Her eyes blinked open, protesting at the sudden light. It was after midnight. She stretched out an arm, feeling for her husband, but her hand met air. She called out his name several times, until finally he answered, ‘What is it, love?’
She tried to arrange the words into a question. She was still half asleep. ‘Where are you? Why haven’t you come to bed yet?’
‘There’s a fly somewhere in the house,’ he answered, ‘and I can’t get to sleep. I’ve been chasing it for hours.’
‘Leave the window open,’ she said drowsily. ‘It’ll fly out by itself.’
She trailed off, leaving her husband clutching a white t-shirt, still trying to kill the fly. She wanted to tell him to use a coloured t-shirt, because the fly blood would stain the white one and be a pain to wash, but she must have said it in her dreams, having quickly fallen back into a deep sleep.
The scene repeated itself the following night. She started waking up at the same time and reaching out for her husband at her side, only to find him gripping the same t-shirt and striding back and forth through the house on his hunt for the fly. Each morning, before she went to work, she asked her husband if he’d managed to kill it. Her chest clenched with a sudden, unshakeable fear after this string of identical night-time occurrences: a suspicion that he might have a second wife. One afternoon shortly afterwards, when she was on her way back from work, she decided to visit her mother.
She went in and sat down in the kitchen, and watched as her mother busily prepared lunch. Her mother noticed she was preoccupied. ‘What is it?,’ she asked. ‘It’s not like you to be so quiet.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s strange. I keep waking up in the middle of the night and finding that my husband isn’t in bed. Every time I ask him why he’s awake, he tells me there’s a fly in the house and he can’t get to sleep. Some nights I can’t tell if he really is chasing a fly or if he’s on his phone or his laptop. I can’t keep an eye on him at night-time. I’m wondering if he’s talking to another woman.’
‘Have you looked at his conversations?’ her mother asked. ‘On his phone and his laptop and so on?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I check them every day, but I never find anything that looks suspicious. What should I do?’
‘I never liked that husband of yours,’ her mother burst out angrily. ‘He’s too quiet, and that smile is fake. I always told you you shouldn’t marry him, but you’re headstrong.’
‘You’re right,’ she said sadly. ‘Honestly, I do regret it. It’s not just that he’s cold. He has odd habits too. He leaves his clothes lying around all over the house. Sometimes I find his boxers under the pillow and his socks in the pocket of his trousers. He never puts anything back where it belongs. He leaves crumbs everywhere when he eats. I’m sick of living with him.’
The mother and daughter sat for a while longer, and their conversation about her husband ranged further, taking in her sister’s husband, and their father, and the odd habits of all their husbands, and their firm conviction that divorce was inevitable, because life was short, and some mistakes just have to be corrected. She left her mother’s house vowing to renounce married life altogether.
She waited for her husband to come home so she could confront him with her suspicions about his behaviour. Starting to get hungry, she lay down on the sofa, and when her husband arrived, smiling as usual, she thought she had better save the conversation till later, since he was the one making dinner. After they’d eaten, she asked him to do the dishes because she wanted to go to bed. From the bed she called out to him to bring her a glass of water. She thanked him with a smile, forgetting her misgivings and her plan to set things straight, then fell deeply asleep. She awoke after midnight as usual, this time feeling arousal surging across her skin. She freed her sweaty hand from her husband’s and batted away a fly that had settled on her face, then put her hand under the cover and started to rub.
Illustration by Amy Chiniara.
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