The garden had so overgrown the walls of the house that Samira could not discern whether anyone still occupied it. In truth, she could not decide if she really wanted to know. A perverse and contrary instinct pulled her to the place; now that she stood before it, regret suffused her. She let her hand fall down the gnarled iron of the gate.
As she stood, an elderly man shuffled down the street, each hand balancing a metal plate dotted with glasses of tea. He wore a long robe, the end spattered with dust and grime from the street, and his head was wrapped with a grey cloth. Deep lines carved his face, which crinked into a bemused smile when he saw her standing on the sidewalk, arm outstretched.
“Yaa basha,” she called, checking her shawl to make sure it was at a modest level around her head. “I have a question.”
“Yes, mademoiselle?” He said the French word with a rhetorical flourish; Samira felt he might have actually bowed had he not been burdened with the trays of tea.
“Who lives in this house, now?”
The man peered up at the house for a moment. “I think it is almost always empty. Sometimes there are cars, though. But I do not know who it has been in many years – not since Khaleel Rahman left.”
Samira's breath caught in her throat. “You know Khaleel Rahman?”
The man drew himself up with a dilapidated pride. “I was bawab here for 10 years.” His expression fell slightly. “But then, I joined the army.”
She tried to piece together a memory of this wizened man but could not. In her memory, the bawab had been a heavy-set, insouciant man with a deep voice and a barrel chest. No matter how many years had passed, she could not see him transformed into this diminutive figure.
“When was this?”
The man thought for a while, blinking rheumy grey eyes. “Maybe 25, 30 years ago I left? But I remember. Rahman was a great man.”
The hell he was, though Samira to herself. “Shukran, basha,” she replied out loud and inclined her head. He hefted the trays and continued down the street at the same slow, steady pace, slippered feet falling on the uneven pavement with rhythmic slaps.