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|New books, new visions by Richard Dell|
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A children's novel in which, for the street boys of Cairo, football is more important than food. When Karim is dropped from his team, it is as if his world has ended. To get back into his team, and to play in the final, he needs a Manchester United shirt, and he needs revenge. But on the rooftops of Cairo, and from the street tea man, he finds another way. If victory is to be Karim's, even victory against his employer's angry son, it will not come from stealing a shirt.
WHEN THE TEA MAN TALKS
First published 2012
Since the time when Karim played football in the streets of Cairo , some of the world's great players have left Manchester United. Some have retired; some have gone on to play for other teams. However, the enthusiasm of Cairo 's boys for street football has never altered. It is an enthusiasm that is as great and passionate as ever.
It happened in Cairo not long ago. It happened in Cairo that is the greatest city of Egypt ; the greatest city of all of Africa ! Cairo of the River Nile ! Cairo of the Sphinx and the Pyramids! Cairo that once ruled the world!
There is an end to this story, but the ends of stories belong at their ends. There is no beginning to this story, for where does any story truly begin?
Did twelve-year-old Karim's story begin the day he was let off early from work? Or did it begin five years before, when his father died and Uncle Mustafa, who was not Karim's real uncle, came to Karim's little flat after the funeral and offered his protection? ‘You will not starve, Karim,' bearded Mustafa said then. ‘Nor will Fatima your mother.'
Uncle Mustafa beat his chest with his giant fist and roared. ‘Am I not Mustafa who was your father's oldest friend? Do I not keep the oaths I swear to Allah? I will give you work, Karim. I will feed you, and with the money you earn you will feed your dear mother here who I have known since I was a boy like you. No one else will die! This I promise!'
Or perhaps this story began long before Karim was even born, when his father and Uncle Mustafa were young and they played football together in the streets. For it can be said that Karim, who ran from Uncle Mustafa's workshop earlier than usual one evening, would not have been Karim if his father had not died. Nor would he have been Karim if his father who once ran like the wind had not played football with Mustafa who once ran like a gazelle.
But perhaps the story began even earlier, when all the best stories should. Perhaps it began a thousand years back, when some forgotten ancestor of Karim's rode out of the desert with an army of Muslims and made a home beside the Nile . That Muslim ancestor loved one of Egypt 's Christians, and so Karim could not have been Karim if the pyramids had not always been dreaming for all of Egypt .
And Karim himself? Well, you would have missed Karim if you had seen him in the teeming streets of Cairo with its ten million, fifteen million, some say twenty million people. Anyone would have missed him. When the street sellers were shouting, and from all the minarets of Cairo the faithful were being called to prayer; when the street tea men carried their samovars of boiling water on their backs, and blind beggars strained their ears for your generosity, and men with no hands strained their ragged arms for your charity, who would have noticed a boy who was small for his age, who had ears that flapped like an elephant's ears, and who had a smile that spread out like a bright carpet suddenly unrolled on the ground? But he was Karim!
And on that night, after a long day in Uncle Mustafa's workshop, he had been let out early. He was running through the narrow, canvas-covered street that was a street of souvenir shops for western tourists. He poked his head round the doors of those shops and shouted that he was going home early because tomorrow he had a big football match. And the shopkeepers laughed and told him that one day he would play for Egypt , and would be stolen from them by an English club, but still they would love him. And one shopkeeper asked him where tomorrow's great game was to be played, and when Karim told him which street it was to be, the shopkeeper said he might walk down with Mustafa and watch.
‘I remember Mustafa when he was a boy. The best footballer in Cairo .'
‘The best?' Karim asked.
The shopkeeper laughed and hung from a hook on the ceiling a great lantern that sparkled with coloured glass. ‘The best except for your father. Mustafa was the gazelle. Few could stop him. But your father, Karim. Ah, your father ran like the wind!'
‘Just like me!' Karim yelled. And he hurried on down the street, happy at the thought of the match he would play tomorrow. Above him, the multi-coloured canvas – in places torn, in other places drooping like the petals of gigantic flowers – was draped between the shops. It was there to keep the sun off during the fierce heat of the day. Now, at night, it hid the stars and the tall minarets of the nearby mosque. Now it made that narrow street with its lanterns and bowls and jugs hanging from a thousand hooks, and its plates and ornamental coffee cups propped on a hundred shelves, and its strings of polished stones, and its strange ancient looking statues, feel like a shadowed hall, a shadowed place of safety. Except that on that particular night when Karim was going home early, it wasn't safe. For at the end of the street, blocking Karim's way, was Yusuf.
And Yusuf put out his hand to stop Karim. He was with his friend, wide-mouthed Omar, and both had come back from a match. They were dressed in their blue Chelsea football kit which they were so proud of and which Karim was so envious of.
‘Are you sneaking away?' Yusuf growled, shoving Karim against a pillar. ‘Sneaking away and still expecting to be paid? That would be just like you. Always smiling and making up to my father. Having him think you're such a nice, trustworthy boy. But all the time you sneak away when he's not looking.'
‘No I don't Yusuf! Honest I don't. Your father let me go early. He really did. I've got my big match tomorrow. The semi-final! So he called me over. He told me to pack up and go, and to hurry straight home. He did!'
Yes, that was the truth of it. Yusuf was Uncle Mustafa's son. And if Uncle Mustafa honoured Karim, and protected him, and kept him and his mother alive through the work he gave Karim, Uncle Mustafa doted on Yusuf. Of course he did! He was an Egyptian father. That's what Egyptian fathers did. Doted on their sons. Thought their son's shone brighter than Egypt 's bright sun. Thought their sons would grow taller than Egypt 's tallest minarets.
Yusuf raised an eyebrow. ‘My father let you home early? A likely story. He has to make money and these are hard times. Not so many tourists these days, Karim. They're even harder times than they need to be with your mouth to feed as well as his own family's. Let you home early? I don't think so.'
‘Honest, Yusuf! He really did! Ask anyone in the workshop. They'll tell you. He'd just brought us mint tea. He always does, every evening. And I had just finished mine when he came back in. I thought there was going to be a special order. There were some rich Americans looking round earlier in the day. I thought perhaps they had ordered something special and we would all have to work late. But they hadn't. They told him they would come back another day. And then he called me from my bench and told me to go. I never sneak away, Yusuf. I wouldn't. I would never do that to Uncle Mustafa. Mama and me owe him everything.'
‘Well, that bit's true, charity boy. You and your mother would be in the gutter where you both belong if it wasn't for my family. Oh I suppose I might believe you, Karim. Perhaps you're not such a fool to go behind my father's back when you could so easily be found out.' Yusuf glanced at Omar and smirked. ‘Yes, we believe the charity boy, don't we, Omar? But it doesn't mean we have to let it happen.'
Karim tried to smile up at Yusuf. But he did not feel like smiling. Yusuf was a year older than him. But he could have been three years older at least. It was because Yusuf ate well. Meat every day. Coca Cola from cans. Karim and his mother ate mostly bread: cheap government bread. And fuul of course! Made of beans, which Karim loved and slurped up as if the world was going to end before he could finish it. Fuul was good. But meat made you grow. And over the years Yusuf had grown fast whilst Karim had grown slowly. So every year Yusuf's punches hurt more, and the pain from his kicks lasted longer. Yes, Karim tried to smile, but on his lips he could already taste the tears that would soon fall from his eyes. It was written in the sands, and the sphinx had always known it. Karim was going to feel pain.
‘But your father told me to go home, Yusuf.'
‘Oh no,' Yusuf said. ‘When you live on my family's charity you can't expect life to be quite that easy. So let me tell you something, charity boy. A little bit of news for you.' Yusuf thumped his chest as if he had become his father. ‘Our team won tonight. I scored a goal. Omar here scored two.'
Omar laughed and bounced a ball between his hands. ‘Two perfect goals.'
‘Congratulations,' Karim quickly said. But right now he didn't care about football. He was trying to work out the best way to slip past them. At the end of the street he could see the gardens in front of the mosque. He could see families out walking. They were eating. They were laughing. He could see boys and girls who in the daytime went to school. And beyond them he could see the dark alleyways that led to home. He knew every inch of those alleys. Every stone, every dark doorway, especially every ledge. He knew them like he knew how to dribble around the food stalls with a football. If he could just get into that crowd, Yusuf might not then be able to catch him.
Omar was grinning. His mouth was so wide! Nadia, who lived in the same alley as Karim, always told him to be careful not to fall into Omar's mouth that was as wide and treacherous as the Nile in flood. Nadia would laugh at Omar behind his back. She would stretch out her mouth with her fingers when Omar wasn't looking. It would make Karim laugh as well, and that was not good, because Omar did not like being laughed at.
Now Omar's grin got even wider. ‘We're in the final, little Karim. So if you win your match tomorrow, you will be playing against us .'
‘Well,' Yusuf said. ‘Your team will be. We're not sure we want to be playing against you . You're fast. Too fast.'
‘But it's my team, not yours!' Karim cried. He didn't like what they were saying. They were up to something. ‘You can't stop me playing for my own team!'
Yusuf grabbed Karim's shoulder. Karim squealed, but Yusuf just drew him closer. ‘Do you know what? You're right, Karim. We can't stop you playing. But we can stop you being fit enough to play. Are your team going to pick you if you're not fit ?'
Suddenly Yusuf's knee smashed into Karim's stomach. Karim gasped and doubled up. It hurt! Omar brought a fist back. Yusuf was ready to kick.
It wasn't how the day was supposed to end. It had been supposed to end comfortably, with him going home early, surprising mama, getting straight to bed so he would feel good for tomorrow's work – more importantly, for tomorrow evening's game. That was what Uncle Mustafa had said to him. Karim had come from the dusty workbench, and Uncle Mustafa had bent down to him, and had spoken very quietly and kindly. Uncle Mustafa was always kind. ‘Listen, Karim. You will be playing football tomorrow.'
‘But Uncle Mustafa…'
‘You always play football. I watch you. You might not know that. But I watch. You are good, Karim. You are fast.'
Karim's eyes had lit up. ‘Fast like my father had been before he died? Like the wind? You always tell me that he played like the wind.'
Uncle Mustafa had laughed. ‘No!'
He had laughed even more at Karim's crestfallen face. ‘Not yet, my boy. But soon you will be a gazelle like I was. Soon I will watch you and I will remember myself when I was young, when I played with your father. And one day, Karim, who knows? One day you might be the wind just like your father was. But, Karim, you never will be if you leave here late and dawdle like you usually dawdle. Get to bed on time. Get up in the morning fresh. I know about the game you are playing tomorrow. An important game, eh?'
‘Yes, Uncle Mustafa. The most important ever. If we win, and then win the next one, we will be…'
Uncle Mustafa had laughed. ‘You will be the best boys' street team in all of Cairo ! And there can be no greater prize than that! That's what your father and I were. Ah we played some games, Karim; and got shouted at and chased by half the shopkeepers of Cairo . But in the end they all stopped shouting and chasing because they wanted to watch. We were so good, Karim. We were legends!'
Karim had thanked him again. Of course he had. Karim and his mother owed everything to Uncle Mustafa. Even if the big man had told him he must work all night and all the next day Karim would have thanked him. He would have gone on his knees and kissed his feet if Uncle Mustafa might have allowed him. But Uncle Mustafa had told him to go. And so Karim had hurried from the workshop, dancing and laughing at having an early night. But he had barely got into his stride. He had barely got to the shop at the end of the street. And now he was bent over, his stomach exploding with pain.
He felt himself falling. Felt he was going to be sick. But Yusuf picked him up. Thrust him back against the pillar. A fist slammed into his chest. He heard Omar laugh. Heard him say, ‘run and score a goal with this leg, charity boy!' Then felt a shattering pain in his knee.
Again Karim slumped down. Saw the paving stones start to spin, knew he had to get away. Didn't know how. Omar's foot was back, ready to kick again. Yusuf was ready to haul him to his feet, ready to punch him again, finish him off if he could, so that just getting home would be beyond him.
Use your wits before they're gone, Karim told himself. His head was spinning. Omar was laughing. The laugh sounded far away; as if it was coming from one of the dark alleys where fear could lurk. Your wits are going, Karim told himself. Use them before you can't hear him laughing. Before his laugh is so far away he might be across the Nile, even across the wide Sahara . So far that…
The effort was all in his mind. His whole body seemed to hurt. But it was his mind that was the problem. Still bent over, still feeling as if he must be sick any moment, still aware that Omar's foot was already hurtling in at his knee again, he tried to force his mind to work, to tell his body what it must do. To act, though it wanted to sleep. To throw himself down and between them, to scramble away. Do it! Do it! He told himself. Do it!
The next blow landed. He dropped with the pain. But then, hardly knowing what he was about, he shoved himself between Yusuf's legs. Heard Yusuf's fist miss and slam into Omar's shoulder, heard Omar's foot crumple against the pillar. Heard some of the pots outside the shop crash to the floor. Heard the shopkeeper's yell. Heard Yusuf punch Omar.
Then Karim stood. He staggered to the steps that led out of the street into the square before the mosque. He felt the bright lights on him. Felt the swirl of families around him. Saw faces. Saw eyes. Saw a tea man with a samovar strapped to his back pouring tea for an old woman in a black chador that covered her from head to foot. Saw the tea man refuse money. Saw the old woman offer him Allah's blessings. Karim stopped just for a moment. Breathed. Steadied himself. Head between his knees. He was a street urchin caught in a swirling sea of families who were out in the cooler air of the evening. He smelt the food they were eating. Felt their safety as they walked hand in hand. Then he heard Yusuf calling to Omar. Heard them racing down the steps.
Karim shot upright. He was in pain but now he hardly felt it. He weaved his way through the crowd. Got yelled at. Didn't care. Saw the tea man smile at him. Didn't understand. Got himself into a dark alley and sped away towards home, towards a door he could close behind him and lock. He stopped once at a corner. Looked back. Saw Yusuf and Omar: dark angry shapes against the brightness of the square. Saw they were gaining on him. They were older and better fed. They were stronger. But he was a gazelle wasn't he?
No, he thought to himself. He was a wounded gazelle. And the wounded gazelle was always prey to the lion.
The alleys should have hidden him, protected him. They were dark. They were narrow. He knew them better than he knew the pots that came out of Uncle Mustafa's furnace. Knew them better than the look on his mother's face when she had no food for him. But if he was not careful, they weren't going to protect him. Not this time. He was going to be trapped in them. Trapped in one of the dark corners where doors did not open to give him somewhere else to run.
‘Don't be a gazelle,' he breathed. ‘Now you must be like papa was. Now you must be the wind!'
Karim came to a corner. He peered round it into a street. There were grey houses piled one upon the other, like giant children's bricks. There were painted doors with peeling paint. On one side, half the street's upper floor was in ruins. There was a mosque at the far end: its minaret, old Turkish and like a sleek rocket, pointed to the starry sky where heaven was supposed to be. A man was sitting in the street on a plastic chair watching television, like Mr Hussein always did in Karim's own alley. Two boys were peering over the man's shoulders. There was the sound of gunshots from an American gangster film. And then there was another man staggering towards Karim, an enormous round sack on his shoulders. It was the sort of sack Nadia hauled around Cairo , collecting and selling rags for her father. The man was bowed down because the sack was several times bigger than he was. His eyes were on the ground. But Karim knew what he had to do. That huge sack was his chance.
Karim laughed as he skidded into the street. Laughed as he thought of how Nadia always stood on top of her pile of rags in the morning. Still limping, he shifted himself round the man with the sack, got behind him, more important got behind that great bundle of rags.
His knee was hurting. His chest ached. But there was no sign of Yusuf and Omar. He edged backwards up the street, keeping the bent-over man and his enormous sack between himself and the corner he had come round. Not far he thought to himself. There was every chance he had given them the slip.
Again Karim laughed, but immediately he doubled up with the pain in his chest. He placed his hands on his thighs, brought his head down. Hoped the pain would go. He had escaped. But he hurt. Quickly round the next corner, he told himself, just in case. He backed into an alley.
There were splitting pains in his chest and right knee. But to escape from Yusuf and Omar was a victory. And by tomorrow morning the pain would be less. By tomorrow evening he would be ready to score goals. Yusuf and Omar might have played in the blue of Chelsea . But Karim's team were Manchester United. His friends Reda and Hassan even had United's red shirts and white shorts. Karim only had a pair of black socks that Nadia had found for him amongst her rags. But it didn't matter. His team was Manchester United. They called each other by their Manchester United names. Ronaldo! Rooney! Karim was Beckham. And even though Beckham no longer played for United that was who Karim would always be. Beckham in a torn t-shirt and ragged shorts and black socks found on a Cairo rubbish dump. He was Beckham. And tomorrow he would score goals. Because he had escaped. Because tonight he would sleep. And because in the morning he would forget that he hurt. Perhaps Nadia would be standing on her pile of rags. Perhaps she would laugh at him. Perhaps he would threaten to push her off. Perhaps…
‘Got you, Karim. And you have nowhere to run.'
The alley Karim had stumbled into was a dead end. There was just a wall ahead of him. A mound of rubbish at his feet. No windows that he could jump onto. No doors. No steps onto the roofs. No ledges. Just a wall with not a single handhold!
He turned. And there they were. Blocking his way out. Yusuf was grinning. Omar his wide mouth clamped shut, had a piece of iron pipe in his hand.
Karim stared at them. He was not the wind. He was a wounded gazelle.
And the lions were about to eat him.
Omar laughed and slapped the iron pipe against the palm of his hand. ‘Oh there's no doubt about it. No doubt at all. He certainly isn't going to be fit to play tomorrow.'
Yusuf did not laugh. Yusuf just glared at Karim. When he spoke his voice was a low growl. ‘He'll be lucky if he's fit to ever play again.'
They got closer. Karim could see the smudge of rust the bar had left on Omar's palm. He could see the sweat round Yusuf's eyes.
Karim quickly stared around the alley. But there was just the high wall behind him, and that was impossible to climb. Why had he come into such a place? He was Karim. He knew all the streets and alleys. Knew which ones had stairs leading up to the roofs, or at least ledges and half-open windows that allowed a long-legged boy to climb. Cairo was filled with such streets and alleys. The rooftops had to be reached. Whole families, who could afford nothing else, lived on the rooftops of Cairo . But he had chosen an alley that was blind, an alley with no windows for anyone to watch him being beaten.
They were close now. He wondered why Yusuf hated him so. Wondered what an iron pipe would feel like. Wondered why he had even thought that. It would hurt! Like no pain he had ever known before. Of course it would! A fist hurt too, but a fist could also know pain. A fist could not punch too hard without hurting the puncher. But an iron pipe? An iron pipe knew no pain at all. Nor did an iron pipe know anything of Allah's mercy or compassion.
Omar raised the pipe above his head. He grinned. He made clucking noises with his teeth. But Yusuf looked scared.
‘You shouldn't have picked that pipe up,' Yusuf snapped at Omar. ‘He just needs to be taught a lesson. Just needs to know that I am my father's son and he is a nobody; that he always will be a nobody. My father feeds him, protects him. My father takes his mother food after prayers on Fridays. But he is nothing! Nothing!' Yusuf swung round and grabbed Omar's hand. ‘Not too hard,' he hissed.
‘Don't be soft,' Omar said. ‘I'll do him hard alright.'
Karim brought his hands up to protect his head. This was going to be worse than any beating they had managed to give him before. There was real fear in Yusuf's eyes. There was anger in the way Omar's wide mouth was clamped shut. Pray to Allah, Karim told himself. You do not go to the mosque enough, Karim. Not since papa died. But now you must pray. Now you must pray that Allah in his compassion and mercy will save you. Pray!
But he did not have time. Omar's hand was white where it clenched hold of the iron pipe. Omar's eyes were wild.
And then the iron pipe swung down.
Suddenly Yusuf tried to stop Omar. Tried to get between him and Karim. But he was too late. He was shoved aside and the iron pipe continued downwards. Karim screamed. Prayed to Allah. Steeled himself for the blow. But the iron pipe was in the air, turning over and over: spinning. Yusuf was at Karim's feet, his chest crumpling into the litter-strewn dirt. And Omar was falling back, still straining for the iron pipe he had lost his grip of. But the iron pipe was twisting away from him, and away from Karim too, as if Allah or some invisible genie was wildly dancing with it. And then Karim could see nothing of his attackers. Just greyness. And just their cries. Just Omar's swearing as he finally landed on his back. And just the clatter of the iron pipe as it bounced in the dirt. Something large and round filled the alley. Bounced in the alley. Bounced on top of Yusuf and Omar.
Then a voice high above Karim called his name. Was it a miracle? Was he, Karim, being helped by Allah? Had the tea man smiled at him because the tea man had known? Were the pyramids dreaming dreams of kindness just for him?
But if this was Allah or the pyramids, then Allah or the pyramids had a girl's voice. Allah or the pyramids had Nadia's voice!
Karim laughed. He looked up, and there was Nadia's round, sun-darkened face. She was staring down from the top of the building.
‘Hurry, Karim! Out of the alley as fast as you can! I can see everything up here. I will guide you!'
Yusuf was at Karim's feet, struggling to get up. Omar was lying on his back, shaking his head. And between them was a huge grey bag of rags. Nadia's rags! Nadia the rag collector's daughter! Nadia whom he had known since he had first learned to run and kick a ball. Nadia who stood on her pile of rags in the morning and laughed at him as he went to get cheap government bread. She had pushed the bag over the edge of the roof, and her aim had been perfect. It had fallen on top of them and flattened them. It had been better than any goal he had ever scored in the whole of his life.
‘Karim! You must be quick!'
Karim was no longer the hunted gazelle. Karim was a free gazelle! With a laugh of relief, he leapt over Omar and raced to the end of the alley. Nadia on the rooftop followed him.
‘To the left, Karim! I will guide you!'
He turned left into the street and ran. He still hurt from where they had hit him. But fists and feet could never stop him. An iron pipe could. But not fists and feet.
‘Karim! Left again! Now!'
There was another alley. He dived into it. Did not need Nadia to direct him anymore. There was a stone slab, and above it a window, and above that another window. It was as good as a staircase.
Karim leapt from the slab onto the window sill. Someone behind its shutter shouted. But he was gone in an instant, up to the next window, up to a ledge.
Nadia laughed as she ran to him. He was on the roof. He was getting to his feet. He was staring at her.
‘We must run, Karim. They are down there following. Soon they will climb.'
Then they heard Yusuf's voice in the alley below them.
So they ran. Nadia tried to take Karim's hand. He shook her hand away. But they ran. Across the other Cairo that was the Cairo of the rooftops. A Cairo of a great sky of stars. A Cairo of minarets. They leapt across a narrow alley. Then they looked back at where they had started from. Yusuf was already there. He was reaching down. He was hauling Omar up.
‘Have they seen us?' Karim whispered.
They were beside someone's tattered, makeshift home. It was just bits of wood with rags stretched across. Piles of rubbish in sacks weighted down the roof. A door with no hinges leaned against the brick wall the shack had been propped against. Through the open doorway Karim could see a kettle and a small cooking ring. A man and woman were squatting outside, watching him. The man was grey-haired and bearded. He had eyes that Karim did not like. They were eyes without hope. The woman wore a black chador, but she had let it slip from her head. She had a baby sleeping in her lap, and she had the hope that mother's have for their children dreaming in her eyes.
‘They have seen you,' the man growled. ‘What have you stolen from them?'
‘Nothing!' Karim cried. He was indignant at such a question. ‘I do not steal! I work. I earn money. I pay for what I have.'
The man grunted. ‘You don't look like a boy who has very much.'
‘I have a mother, honoured sir. And I want to get back to her safe.'
The woman had been watching her baby. Now she looked up at him. The man's face was hard, suspicious. But hers was kind. ‘Then run, child.'
They hurried away, darting between the satellite dishes and boiler vents. Karim was limping, but he was still fast. To his surprise Nadia was not slower than him. Nadia was fast as well.
Soon they had leapt onto the roof of a mosque. Its great dome, rich with carved patterns and three times their height, could hide them. Here, for a while at least, Yusuf and Omar would be unable to see them. They stopped behind it, drew breath. Karim rubbed his hurt knee. Nadia's plump face, deep brown from the sun that burned on her every day as she hauled her father's sacks, was suddenly worried. ‘We must not go too far,' she said.
‘We have to get away, Nadia. At least I do.'
Leaning back against the dome, Karim was remembering all the times Yusuf had been cruel to him. Few days went by when Yusuf did not find some way to hurt him. In the shop. Out of the shop. But Uncle Mustafa's store cupboard was the favourite place. Karim would be sent there to get rags or a bottle of the etching acid they used for the pots and jugs after they came from the furnace, and Yusuf would slip in after him. It was a quiet place, set away from the workshop. It was dark and stuffy and usually the electric light spluttered on and off like lightning in a storm. And usually, as he pretended to be looking for something, Yusuf would manage to jab Karim in the back, or kick him on his knee or ankle. And sometimes a terrible anger would get hold of Yusuf and blows would rain down on Karim, and Karim would suddenly feel as if he was fighting for his life. Both boys would stumble out of the store room, bruised and bleeding. Karim would say nothing when Uncle Mustafa demanded to know what happened. He couldn't. He received Uncle Mustafa's protection. Uncle Mustafa's protection kept him alive; and it kept him humble. But Yusuf would tell his father how Karim had suddenly lashed out at him, and Karim would hang his head and Uncle Mustafa would become sad and would tell Karim that one day he would have to tell his mother about these sudden fits of anger. Now, with Nadia beside him, Karim rubbed his bruised knee and sighed. Being attacked by Yusuf wasn't something that was going to end. But he didn't want to be hit any more tonight.
He turned and stared at Nadia. ‘I can't be caught by them again, Nadia. Not tonight. They hurt me. And tomorrow I must play football. Tomorrow is the big game.'
She shook her head. ‘They will go for me as well, Karim. Boys like that will not care that I am a girl.'
‘Then let's go!'
‘No!' She grasped his arm. ‘I have to get the rags back.'
‘We can't go back, Nadia! Yusuf and Omar are big.'
‘But my rags, Karim.'
He stared at her; did not take his eyes from her, willed her to forgive him for what he was about to say. It was something boys were not supposed to say to girls. ‘Nadia,' he whispered. ‘I am scared of them.'
She looked at him. And he guessed what she was thinking. Boys were supposed to be scared of nothing. Strong as elephants. Fierce as lions. Fast as leopards.
She took his hand. This time he did not pull his hand back.
‘Sometimes I am scared of my father,' she whispered. ‘When he is angry. But always I am more scared of being hungry. I have to get that bag, Karim. It is big. It is full.' She smiled. ‘I will find a pretty dress in it, Karim. I always do. Would you like me to wear a pretty dress, Karim?'
He snatched his hand from her. ‘No!' Stupid Nadia, saying things like that. He hated it when she made jokes about her dresses. Almost every morning when he came from the flat to get bread she would be standing on her pile of rags and she would call him and laugh at him and get him to look at the new dress she had found amongst them. Always it was the best dress in Cairo . Always, though her face might be smudged with dust, she would say it definitely made her the prettiest girl in Cairo . The prettiest girl in all of Egypt !
Nadia laughed and moved round the dome so she could sneak a look. She peeped out, then jerked her head back. She beckoned Karim to her; grabbed his hand again. ‘We have no choice,' she whispered. ‘They are almost here.'
‘We could have escaped, Nadia. If you hadn't got us to stop we could have been off this roof and back down in the alleys. We could have been almost home.' But then he shrugged. Without her, he would not have been on the roof in the first place. He would have been down in that blind alley, he would already be half left for dead. She had helped him. Saved him. So he knew that now it was his turn to help her. ‘Alright,' he sighed. ‘We will double back for your rags.'
‘I can give you a present if you want it?'
‘What sort of present?'
She grinned. ‘Something you want more than anything in the world. Something you have wanted all your life.'
‘Girls talk nonsense. Always nonsense. Now be quiet.'
He eased himself round the dome. He could see them! Yusuf was in front. Omar was a few steps behind, staring ahead, his eyes fierce, his wide mouth set in a grim line. The iron pipe was back in his hand.
Karim turned to Nadia. He put his finger to his mouth. Surely a girl would at least understand what that meant. She nodded. There was no laughter in her eyes anymore. She was as deadly serious as he was. Nadia was wearing a sleeveless dress over loose trousers. Her arms, as dark from the sun as her face, were bare, and he saw the muscles in them tighten. He saw too the sinews of her neck become hard, saw her mouth compress. Saw the look in her eyes. Like a bird of prey. Like the eyes of a falcon soaring above Cairo 's citadel of Saladin. Yes, she understood.
He reached out his hand. She took it. He could feel the strength in her and it surprised him. Sometimes there was more to Nadia than her just being a stupid girl. He pointed to her feet. She nodded and he knew she understood. They must tread carefully; make no sound. He inched forward, pulling her with him. Slowly, carefully, they moved as Yusuf and Omar came up to the dome. Every now and then there came the unpleasant pat of the iron pipe slapping into the palm of Omar's hand. Karim and Nadia shifted round a bit more.
‘Where've they gone?' they heard Omar say.
Yusuf snapped back at him. ‘They might have dropped down to the street.'
‘We'd have seen them. They're up here somewhere. And I'll get them. No one escapes from Omar. And no girl makes a fool of me with a bag of rags. She'll wish she hadn't come up on the roof to play. Not tonight. Not when Omar has Karim in his sights.'
‘Then we'd better speed up, or someone actually will escape from you, and that Nadia will have made a fool of you whether you like it or not. And for the sake of Allah, throw that bit of pipe away.'
‘I'll throw it at you if you don't shut up!'
Karim and Nadia were inching round. Watching their feet. Watching for anything that might make a noise. Every sense on fire. Straining for information. Smelling the breeze and the sky. Tasting the mood of the night. The streets were still alive. Like rivers in deep gorges. Some quiet and slow. Some, the wider ones, like raging torrents of noise and shifting lights. The sound of Yusuf's and Omar's Chelsea-blue trainers was all but lost in Cairo 's sleepless grumble and roar. But in Karim's and Nadia's ears the sound of those trainers was amplified a thousand times. Everything hung on that sound, how it moved across the other side of the dome, how it kicked at loose stones, how it suddenly paused, how it shuffled further away, how it brought Karim and Nadia round to the farthest side of the dome, had the grip of their fingers ease, had them breathe again, had him look at her. Now she wasn't just Nadia who lived in his alley anymore. She was Nadia who had shared a hunt with him. Nadia with her face as dark as a Nubian from Egypt 's south.
‘Karim,' she whispered.
‘In the morning, first thing, get bread for me, Karim.'
Leaning against the dome, she squatted down. She rested her elbows on her knees and cupped her chin in her hands. And all the time she watched him with her dark eyes, and he wondered how eyes for a boy could be so weak and easy to hurt – the best place to punch a boy you were fighting. But a girl's eyes were worse than weapons. They hit you harder than a boy's fist ever could. Boys couldn't hurt you if you were more than their arm's length away from them. But girls could. Nadia could hurt him from one end of the alley to the other: just with her eyes.
‘I'll give you something, Karim, if you bring me bread in the morning. And I did save you.'
He peered round the dome. Yusuf and Omar had leapt one of the alleys. They were heading away. He was going to get home with no more bruises, no more sudden shocks of pain. ‘Give me what?'
‘Something you will like. Something you have always wanted. I know you, Karim. You are my friend and I know what you have wanted since the days you were too small to climb up on my pile of rags and push me off.'
She smiled. Girls' smiles could be as dangerous as their eyes. You couldn't work out what they meant.
‘Something precious, Karim. Something you have been dreaming of every night.'
‘Only you will have to give me bread every day this week. Every single day. Because I get hungry in the morning and you ought to be looking after me like I look after you. Every morning you go and get bread for you and your mother. But you don't get bread for me.'
‘You have your own bread.'
‘I want a piece of bread every morning, Karim. Starting tomorrow.'
He hurled himself away from her, and started back the way they had come. The sooner they got her bag of rags the sooner they could get home. She jumped up and followed. At the same time she smoothed her clothes.
‘Do you like this dress, Karim?'
‘I am the best dressed girl in the whole of Cairo .'
Karim knew that Nadia only got to wear her dresses for a few days. Then, because she always chose the best ones from the rags, her father would demand them back, mended if they needed mending, so he could sell them on. Within a few days she would be wearing something quite different, and claiming she looked just as beautiful in it.
‘Bread for a whole week, Karim? If you get me bread tomorrow I will show you what the present is. If you bring me bread for a whole week I will get it from where I have hidden it and I will hand it to you, and it will be yours.'
But Karim had had enough. He hurried his pace. ‘I haven't got time for your games, Nadia.'
‘But you always want me to have time for your games, Karim. You and your silly football. Every night for a whole year you got me to play football with you. Every night I had to kick a silly ball and pretend I was a silly footballer playing for some silly English team. And every night you told me off for the way I kicked. There's just kicking, Karim! There isn't different ways to kick a ball. You just kick it!'
‘It isn't silly, Nadia. And there's your way to kick a ball and there's the right way. You just kick with your toe. The whole point of kicking a ball is making it go where you want it to go. You can't do that with the end of your toe.'
‘But I don't want it to go anywhere. Well, what I really want is for it to go as far away from me as possible.'
She caught him up. ‘If you come back in the morning with some bread for me, Karim, I will show you the present I have been keeping for you ever since I found it.' She raised a finger. ‘Just one piece of government bread, and I will show you what you have always wanted. I will show you the greatest treasure you could ever imagine. But once I've shown it to you, I will take it back to my hiding place until you have given me bread for a whole week.' She paused. Again her head went to one side. ‘I know you will want it, Karim. And once you have seen it, you really will bring me bread every day for a week. Perhaps even cake. You will! Every single day.'
‘You really are mad!' he cried. ‘Mad and dirty.' He paused and looked at her. ‘And your precious dress is torn at the back.'
She glared at him. But then the smile returned and her eyes took on new depths. ‘You get my bread, Karim. And I will wash my face just for you. And as for my dress…' She stamped her foot. ‘I will mend it! I will have to mend it anyway!'
They dropped down into the alley. Quickly they recovered her bag of rags. Karim helped her haul it through the narrow, bustling streets to their own alley. Mr Hussein was there watching his television, banging it when the picture went, cursing it when the picture flickered with lines of electric light. When Nadia had got the rags inside her father's yard, she stood at her door. Karim shuffled his threadbare trainers in the dirt. Stared down at them. Felt uncomfortable. There was something he knew he had to do. But it felt difficult.
She giggled. ‘Do you want to kiss me, Karim?'
‘No!' Trust a stupid girl to say something like that.
He raised his head. He stared at her. Then he said it, though it was difficult. ‘Thank you, Nadia. I want to say, ‘thank you'.'
She grinned. ‘Because I saved you?'
‘Yes. I suppose.'
‘Will you give me a piece of bread in the morning, Karim? I do get hungry, and I have no Uncle Mustafa like you have to protect me. I just have my father, and he is not rich with a shop and men working in a workshop like your Uncle Mustafa has. Your Uncle Mustafa can even speak English to the tourists. Your Uncle Mustafa is a great man. Will you bring me bread, Karim?'
He nodded. He knew he had to do that for her: after the way she had helped him. Besides, he admitted to himself, he was curious. A present that she had put in her hiding place would be precious indeed. And even gazelles, who lived for football and scoring goals and being part of the best street team in all of Cairo , could be interested in a secret present. He nodded again. ‘Yes, I will bring you bread.'
‘Then I will show you! I will sneak it out tonight. My father does not know where I hide things. I have money there that I make for myself when I am not doing the rags. And I have your present.'
She grasped his hand and before he could pull it away from her she had bent down and kissed it. She glanced up at him. She had a look in her eye, but he could not work out its meaning. Karim was never to know it, but it was the same look a Christian girl had once given to his Muslim ancestor who had come out of the desert. It was the same look the Sphinx had been giving for thousands of years as all the history of Egypt unrolled like a magic carpet before it. It was the same look the sun gave the minarets of Cairo at the very break of day, before its heat got too fierce.
‘Karim,' Nadia whispered. ‘I am going to show you the greatest treasure that Karim the Gazelle could ever imagine.'
The next morning, Karim's mother was at the sink. ‘Hurry, Karim!' she shouted, poking her head round the door into their flat. ‘If you don't get moving there will be no cheap bread left.' Then she quickly returned to what she was doing. The sink was in the corridor, and was shared with five other families. She didn't want anyone to get to it before she was finished. ‘I said hurry!'