She stood naked in the window display; still, she seemed fully made up. This was not the first time he had seen her, with her red cascading hair setting her apart from the bald ones. However, the cause of the crowd this morning was her round breasts which she had exposed for the first time.
The loud laughter caught his attention as he walked warily along the pavement, the same way he did every day. It was as if he was magnetically attracted to the laughter and compelled to cross to the crowd on the other side. He tried to find a space in front of the shop that allowed him to see what was happening, while remaining unobserved.
He didn’t see anything alluring about a wooden mannequin, but hearing all the wolf whistles, he preferred to stop and see what was going on. The men all seemed to him like containers filled with white milk, each of them surpassing their boiling point without being removed from the hob.
The containers of fresh milk were getting hot, and one after the other they boiled over, all those desires spilling onto the floor, defeated by this loud red hair. He felt uncomfortable about the whole scene: red seemed like an interloper, too revolutionary for such stiff features. He looked away from the men for the first time, to take a closer look at the mannequin.
She was raised a few centimetres above the platform, with limp hands, and a flawless physique except for the fact that it was wooden. His eyes swam slowly through her features until they hit that rope around her neck; she is missing a foot, and of all the logical solutions, the shopkeeper chose to hang her from the hose dangling from the air conditioner. So shocking was the scene that it isolated him from the men’s horny laughs, their voices merging and fading into the background. He felt a coldness immerse him, as if he was standing naked up there. He saw her posture change from standing lightly on the floor, to a posture heavily weighted, a weight that forced him to loosen his tie a little, before he collected himself and walked away from the mannequin.
In contrast to that bright red, life in the bank is draped in grey. A grey that covers everything, the walls and windows, doors and ceilings. A thick and boring grey that crawls slowly to float above everything, even his suit that he wears to work, which was black one day but has faded with every wash and turned grey to match the surroundings.
He looks at the clients in the waiting room from his seat behind the glass barrier. He doesn’t like his job, but doesn’t know what other he could find that would give him the same position, watching the world from behind a glass barrier. During his wild days, the glass barrier used to remind him of horses’ stables, but as he got older, the days managed to tame him.
He is brought back by a huff from one of the clients urging him to go faster. He starts working, but he can’t get the mannequin out of his head as he thinks that its display in the shop window will only guarantee two minutes of the audience’s attention.
He gets up to stamp some documents, and when he gets back, the crowded queue of clients has increased. He tries to remove the mannequin’s image from his mind, but to no avail. The clients express their displeasure. He remembers her neck and the rope tied around it. He feels suffocated and loosens his tie a little which increases the impatience of those waiting at the window.
The image of her swinging body is imprinted in his imagination and it weighs his feet down, as if they are nailed to the ground. To check, he raises his feet and swings them, back and forth, and shifts his weight to the chair, which collapses underneath him. All the while the clients’ stares strip him of any dignity. The men’s morning laughter pushes through, as it develops pointed tips which penetrate his ear drums with booming cruelty. He feels the coldness overcome him once again.
‘Just the wood please.’ He struggles as he tries to let out a reply from a throat which usually excels at speaking out, but what he thinks is a clarification, reaches the shopkeeper muffled and confused, and bounces back to him in the form of a suspicious stare. She has just told him the price of the dress that was on the mannequin, which was just a little over one and a half times his salary. He turns his whole body round to face the mannequin and contemplates the overlay of the grey dust’s reflection and the bright white fabric. He almost falls for the trap had he not reached into his empty pocket which brings him back to reality.
The shopkeeper moves her chair which lets out a screech like an alarm bell, which makes him give her the answer, relieving him from the silk web weaved by the white dress. Seeing the accusation in her eyes, he tries to explain himself: ‘I’m a women’s tailor’. She argues, she stalls, then she dismisses the situation like she would swat a fly and she gives him the naked mannequin. He stands still in front of her and she explains, ‘I don’t have any newspapers to wrap it, just carry it the way it is’.
He walks out onto the street, carrying the naked mannequin, feeling his way forward with his chin resting on her shoulder. The invasive looks of passersby violate him, even though it’s the mannequin that’s naked. Someone shouts at him to cover himself. He hides himself in her hardened chest, and prays that none of the men see him. He continues walking absentmindedly and trips on his own thoughts, the road almost betraying him, so he stops and readjusts the mannequin from an attitude of fear and scandal to one of victory. He shifts her weight to his shoulder, and occupies himself with thinking about the urgency of applying for a new chair to replace his broken one. His application should be processed easily. Maybe it will be hindered slightly by bureaucracy, but it should take a week at most. It’s all good.
‘We’re almost there’, he tells himself in an effort to escape his tangled thoughts. He is a committed employee and his years of work will give him priority; he can take seven days of standing, then soon he will get another chair, which he promises to sit on gently. It’s all right, the days will go by fast and the whole thing will be over soon anyway. What’s important now is that no one sees him or it will be a scandal.
He walks a little with quick steps, then stumbles and slows down. ‘Is it Thursday already?’ He slows down and stops to hear laughter. ‘You dirty man’. He stops again and repositions the mannequin, then walks faster to shorten the route. ‘Where is all this chill coming from in May?’
He is told it that will take a while. How long? No one knows, but it will take a while, after which they will ask him to prove that he needs a chair. He asks them to watch the security camera recordings but they tell him that they are broken. He tells them that his colleagues witnessed it happen, but they give the excuse that if they call them it will hinder the workflow. He attaches a broken wooden stand to the application, which they return for not having the appropriate stamps. He asks them if he can bring in a chair from his house, as a temporary solution. They refuse, stating that it would affect the decorative theme of the bank’s interior. All this prospecting doesn’t expose any beauty from underneath the ashes. He tries blowing it away but all he can find is governmental corporate concrete.
Time passes with excruciating slowness. Work hours pass, one by one, and he is still standing, finishing his tasks with fading patience, and he goes home to spend his evening with the mannequin. At least he has set her free and treats her with pride. He starts creating interactions with her for his own entertainment. Sometimes he puts his neck tie on her, sometimes he dresses her in his full suit, but on every occasion he he keeps her seated. She is always sitting down. Days go by and there is still no sign of a chair. He talks to his line manager in an effort to gain his sympathy. He escalates the matter to their general manager, who understands and promises to help, but then bureaucracy overwhelms the three of them. He goes home disappointed to find the mannequin waiting. Sometimes she looks like his mother, more specifically the disappointed look she gave him a few months ago when he came home with a naked female mannequin. He takes off his tie, sits on a chair, and falls asleep. In the morning he goes to work, where to rest he sometimes sits in his clients’ waiting area, or sits on the toilet seats at other times, before he is forced back to his glass cubicle where upset clients have gathered. He returns home to be faced with the mannequin looking at him in the same way a let-down wife would look at her husband, disappointed by his laziness. He feels ashamed, despite the fact that he has never been married, and turns his back to her and lets himself fall into a deep sleep. He leaves his wooden wife at home and escapes to the bank where he can physically feel time slowly passing, and the hands of the clock floating away from the its face, penetrating his head via his ears while still ticking. The hands wreak havoc in his head and he feels numb. He asks for permission to leave, using the numbness in his leg as an excuse. He leaves the bank while being chased by the hands of the clock, and, as soon as he gets home, he picks up the mannequin and puts her on top of his closet, leaving the clock’s hands to eat what’s left of his brain.
‘You’re going to have to wait until the beginning of the next financial year, as this one has closed.’ The administrator springs this news upon him with no consideration for his feelings. His face stiffens and he doesn’t comment, but by the time he reaches his glass cubicle, the fire inside him burns so fiercely that ash emanates from his stomach. This time he leaves without asking permission, and doesn’t come back all day, or the next. On the third day everyone is standing in the waiting room, with their eyes popping out of their sockets and their feet forcedly fixed to the floor.
All the chairs are broken – client chairs, couriers’ chairs and even the manager’s chair. All their legs have been chopped off and thrown into the middle of the waiting room. The employees gather chaotically, watching the hall that has suddenly turned into a national circus. He emerges from amongst them, like a magician who had been training for a long time, and is about to start his show.
He takes out the big package that he has with him, unwraps it and removes its contents, goes down on his knees and grabs one of the broken chairs, opening his bag to reveal a hammer and some nails, and starts banging. With each bang the employees’ feet go deeper and deeper into the ground. They cling onto the bare tiles and stick to them, they don’t dare move. It’s as if they have all been frozen in their places. Puzzled, the manager asks, ‘what are you doing?’ He doesn’t answer, but looks at him challengingly and continues the hammering.
He ends his show, adjusts the chair, drags it to his position behind the glass barrier, sits on it and starts working. Underneath stand three grey legs, and a fourth, wooden, female one, with a small foot and delicate toes, with red shiny nail polish that covers the delicate foot and exposes all the greyness surrounding it.
‘Red, Shiny and Pleasing to the Eyes’ was written as part of Beirut Short Stories, a collaboration between KfW Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut for the promotion of young literary talent in the Middle East. The project consists of writing workshops for young writers writing in Arabic who develop short stories under the direction of renowned writers (including Abbas Khider and Dima Wannous). The best texts are translated and published in Arabic and English on adda.
Illustration by Ghada Khalifa