Neighbours

Some months after the Naw Ruz party in America, at which Ali never materialized and to which Lili never came, Bibi went to France to stay with her second daughter, the artist. An agreement had finally been reached by the sisters, after several heated phone calls, which included many references to Mehdi and Bahman: Bibijan was to remain in Paris for six months during the summer and return to Los Angeles when the weather grew cold, and Fathi was to bring her money out of Iran, at the start of each visit and stay for a week in each plane, with the sisters.

But the first time Bibi stepped into this shoe box of an apartment on the top floor of the ancient building where Lili lived in Paris, with its shower that dribbled mouse's urine and its purple-painted toilet smelling of cheese, she was ready to leave that same night. As difficult as it had been for her in Goli's home, with a husband who clearly found her presence burdensome enought to spend most weekends away, and two children who didn't like talking Persian or her cooking, this was worse. The hot summer air in Lili's apartment smelled of stale smoke and pigeon droppings, and when she opened the balcony door leading off from the tiny kitchen that morning, Bibijan found herself walking straight outside, just to breathe.

And the first thing she noticed, once out, was that there was nowhere else to go. The kitchen balcony led to nothing: it was so narrow that only one person could stand on it at a time. The rest of the flat was narrow too, consisting of a series of tiny rooms leading one into the other: a bedroom, a sitting room, a dining area with a tiny kitchen in the corner, and a bathroom and toilet at the far end of the corridor. The second thing she saw, looking down into the courtyards, was a naked man, smoking. Bibi gulped in a cloud of raw nicotine, and backed immediately into the apartment again. Good thing Fathi hadn't arrived from Tehran yet.

Her daughter mocked her. "You won't find a garden blooming on the top of a building in Marais, you know," she said. Lili was smoking, surrounded by a blue cloud of irritation. Bibi could tell that she was put out about Fathi coming the following week. She resented Fathi. She had argued with Goli over Fathi. Why Fathi? When? For how long? And just because you're too chicken to go yourself? she told Goli. After which there had been a long pause and she had added, that well, Goli couldn't expect her to go, surely? "And what on earth did you expect would be out there anyway?" she now called out, as Bibi stumbled back indoors.

The old woman had half hoped to find another room, perhaps, leading off from the so-called cuisine americaine; where on earth was Fathi going to sleep in this mousetrap of a flat? And besides breathing, she had wanted to see the view from the balcony; she had wanted to check on the neighbours. It was her way of feeling at home, seeing the neighbours. But the man who was living three floors down from Lili was a knife sharpener, as well as naked. What kind of a neighbour was that?

"If he's the young one, it could be the knife sharpener's son," her daughter replied, as if that excused him. "Or perhaps his apprentice." And then she told her mother, somewhat testily, that Fathi would just have to sleep on the floor of her bedroom for the moment. She would ask the landlord about renting a chambre de bonne one floor up in the attic, just for the week that Fathi was here.

Bibi found Lili's view depressing. Her kitchen balcony faced north and was surrounded by a rusty railing. There was an ill-looking mop and a dirty bucket leaning in one corner, and an abandoned flowerpot in the other, together with a nail-bitten broom. The flowerpot had been used as an ashtray and so her daughter's remark about the garden was clearly defensive. The remains of the plant that had given up growing in it stuck out of the blackened soil like a dead man's amputated elbow, but the living man, who was stripped to the waist on his rooftop terrace below, was sitting under a row of vibrant bamboo plants in the new sunlight, glowing.

"Oh, that one," Lili qualified. "It's probably the knife sharpener's love; I'm not sure which of them smokes." She liked to scandalize her conservative, religiously inclined mother. The remark was supposed to be a joke, a poke, a tease, only the old lady didn't find it funny. Perhaps she was just too old. Perhaps she had not stayed in Iran too long. And Lili clearly felt that Fathi should not have left at all. Her daughter's sense of humour had changed since she had become French, thought Bibi sadly.

The building in which Lili lived, constructed in the late seventeenth century, was old too. Everything in it was crooked, everything sagged. The ceilings sloped, the overhead beams were a constant threat, the floor dipped and rose and gave Bibi vertigo. Lili told her this was what made the place interesting; the Marais was a chichi place to live, she said. But her mother preferred convenience to chic. The building backed onto others of the same vintage, and was paralleled on each side by a huddle of apartment blocks without balconies. So there was actually no view at all from the third storey, except rooftops, washing lines, and the courtyards below. The only hint of a neighbour was the knife sharpener on his rooftop terrace, and a large black van parked at the back. It belonged to a company that used the double courtyard down below as a parking lot: a taxi, ambulance, and hearse service.

"To cover all eventualities," Lili added coolly.

Bibi thought it in very bad taste that her daughter should live flanked by a funeral parlor on one side and a knife sharpener on the other. It was shameful as well as ill omened. Where on earth could one look, she thought, glancing uneasily to the right and left, except at the glimpse of green below. The row of bamboo plants was tall and thick; the fresh young shoots thrust up like eager spears. She was fascinated by the way the leaves swayed and glistened, catching the light on the rooftop. The smoking man was sitting in the crosshatched shade, under a canopy of green knives.

"Maybe it's the sharpener himself," said her daughter, inhaling fiercely. "Hot work, filing knives." But as she watched the old woman leaning over the balcony railings, she called out again, "Look out! He could be dangerous!" She meant that to be a tease too, funny ha ha, to cover up her anxiety, and when Bibi came inside, she laughed again through smoke, saying that it had been a joke, just a joke. But it wasn't.

Bibi turned away, for the sake of respect, not to register its lack, not to see this difficult daughter of hers stubbing the cigarette out in the kitchen sink. Lili smoked too much, in her opinion. It was just as bad in this country as in Iran, as far as cigarettes were concerned, but at least some people did it out of doors here. When she asked who the other neighbours were, apart from those who sharpened knives and drove the dead and the dying around, Lili did not know. She had no idea who lived below her, or above the taxi and hearse service, or who was renting the apartments adjacent to the knife sharpener's shop next door. It amazed Bibi that you could live cheek by jowl for years and be completely ignorant of who people were.

"Why would you want to know?" growled her misanthropic daughter.

The old woman sighed. All she knew was that she was missing home at that moment, missing Fathi, missing her neighbours. Lili had become antisocial too, since coming to France, but the two sisters were identical in this regard for there had been no neighbours in Los Angeles, either. Goli had something called "Neighbourhood Watch," but it did not mean you were friends with people; it just meant you spied on each other, you on them and they on you. Bahman seemed to have a running feud with the neighbours; when he wasn't away, surfing, in the place that sounded like a Canadian animal, he was arguing with them about the cat yowling on one side, the dog encroaching on the other. He had threatened to shoot the cat. It was normal to do that in America, apparently. There were guns specially sold for that purpose. In Tehran, Bibi had been friends with all her neighbours and their cats; she had been on talking rather than shooting terms with them. Some she had known for decades. Good people, kind people, closer than family almost. One reason she had finally left Iran was because it was no longer home without her son. But she had felt homeless in the West, without her neighbours.

It was not until three days before Fathi was due and one day after Lili had a loud row with the landlord about money, that Bibijan, finally overcoming her jet lag, noticed the noises. The neighbours below her daughter's apartment were noisier than any she'd ever had in Tehran. The shriek of drills in the knife sharpener's establishment was like a dentist's. It perfectly echoed Lili's grinding resentment towards Fathi. The landlord had told her that it was too short notice for them to rent the maid's room in the attic, but it might be free from next month, which was too late for Fathi. It would, however, cost extra because it was a little quieter on that side which would be better for Bibi. But who needed to sharpen that many knives?

"Murderers," muttered her daughter.

The taxi and ambulance service used industrial vacuum cleaners that whined and blasted like Lili's temper too. Although the hearse had not been called out yet, the blare of the radios and the gust of the siren caused Bibi's heart to seize in panic every time she heard them. It was like nails being scraped across the walls, across the naked flesh of the black and white women staring down at her from the walls. When she first saw her daughter's larger-than-life photographs, her mother was concerned for Fathi: she would be shocked outright; she would be appalled at the sight of their nipples. Although the faces of the naked women remained implacable, it seemed to her that their bodies buckled and cringed at the noises from outside. Why turn the volume up so high?

"To cover the screams," scowled her daughter.

She had become cynical too, in France, thought Bibi. But why? On what grounds? Bibi turned her back on the photographs to avoid seeing the scars of history, raked across the naked flesh. Was it her fault that Lili had left home so soon, so young? She had lost her youth radically too, and brutally. Something nasty, an event that did not bear thinking about, had happened to her at university in France. But whatever it was—Bibi had never asked, never wanted to know—whatever Lili had endured in her youth, she had not been subjected to screams. Her daughter had left Iran long before the Revolution. She had never experienced the war, had never endured the deprivations of sanctions. She hadn't even been there when Ali disappeared. Although it's true, she visited afterwards, several times, wearing a veil that reeked of fear and fury.

Bibi bit her lip. She did not want to dwell on the past, on the unmentionable losses of her daughter, on the fate of her vanished son. She did not want to think of the disturbing times in Tehran. But she could not help remembering some of her neighbours who had also disappeared and others who had screamed. Now, their bitterness may have been justified; they may have had just grounds for cynicism. There was the elderly couple living next door whose home had been broken into in the middle of the night, and a young man at the end of the road who went to work one day and never returned. His wife was abducted too, some weeks later; they said it was because she had been teaching underprivileged kids to read in the lower end of town.

They were apostates, Fathi told Bibi, ducking under her headscarf as if the very word might contaminate her. They were spies, aliens, undermining the regime, she said. Bibi couldn't believe it. Spies for whom? For what? But the facts were covered up, the information suppressed. Fathi thought they must surely have been communists, terrorists, Zionists, Kurds, Christians, Baha'is, Afghans, Sufis, homosexuals, or all the above. Mehdi advised her to ask no questions if she wanted to see her son back. It had all been silent, suffocated. But when, some months later, the elderly couple next door were hauled off in the middle of the night too, they had called out for help. They had screamed. It had been impossible for Bibi to sleep after that.

Things happened in Iran which did not bear thinking about, she thought. But she could not help thinking about them now. Bibi unfortunately had plenty of time to think in the tiny apartment in the Marais. Perhaps Lili's cynicism was her fault after all; perhaps she should have been more concerned about her daughters and less obsessed with her son. To calm the agitation of these thoughts, she took to the balcony again, and rested her eyes on the bamboo garden below. The knife sharpener, or his apprentice or perhaps his lover or maybe his son, was beautiful to watch, long-limbed and limber in his movements. Like the journalist from Bandar Abbas.

The young man had come looking for his parents a few days after the elderly couple's arrest; he had travelled by bus, all the way from the south. The old people had been very proud of him; he wrote for the papers, they said. A journalist. The year before, at Naw Ruz, they had shown her, their trusted neighbour, his photograph: a fine young man, with his wife beside him and little girl holding a dish of sprouted lentils. Which was how she recognized him, six months later, standing distraught in the middle of the street, holding a shoe. Which is why she had allowed herself to be infected by Fathi's suspicions. She was afraid. She had done nothing to help him.

It was dangerous in Iran, in those early days of the Revolution, to be seen talking to people who stood distraught in the middle of the street. Especially journalists. It was unwise, so soon after the start of the war, to be seen consoling those who grieved. If they were true Muslims, they should be proud of their dead. As she should be, of her disappeared son, Mehdi warned. She had too much to lose. Don't take risks, he had said. Ali was still unaccounted for and she could jeopardize her compensation for his death. The General had recently died and she needed to protect her widow's pension. So she stayed indoors until she thought the neighbour's son had left. She did not send Fathi down to him; she did not invite him indoors. And no one else did either because when she finally left the house to go to the market, there he still was, in the middle of the street, a grown man, weeping.

She blinked away the memory hurriedly and wiped her eyes. There had been rumours, some months afterwards, that the young man had been attacked in his car, murdered in broad daylight in Bandar Abbas. On the same baseless grounds. She had no idea what had happened to his wife and child. No, it did not bear thinking about. She should have stayed in California, where you didn't even see your neighbours, because good grief, there was this one again, airing himself as if he were completely alone! She peered over the rusted railings to where the knife sharpener's apprentice or lover or son sat with his legs wide open under the thatch of green below. The fact that she didn't know who the fellow was made the young man's proximity all the more unnerving. Neighbours in Europe were too alien to be living so close.

Bibi peeped down at the young man furtively. His tanned chest was covered with a thick pelt of black hair. Blue tattoos snaked across his belly. He must be about the same age as Ali would be now. But what surprised her most was the book in his hand. He had stopped his filing and grinding and whetting in the sweltering workshop and had come out on the rooftop, not just to smoke and air himself, but to read. What on earth would a knife sharpener read?

"Crime fiction, probably," answered Lili, impatiently.

She was on the phone again, but it wasn't with Goli this time. She had a busy social life, this French daughter. She had things to do; she had people to meet. She was the member of a cultural association whose activities she had promised to take Bibi to, so she could get to know some other Iranians in the quartier, she said, so she could have friends in the neighbourhood. She wanted her mother to get out of the flat, to stop brooding, to have a life, as she put it. She herself definitely had one now, in spite of having lost it before: she was fully occupied with her interviews and art exhibits, her conferences and her cultural goings-on. Bibi felt she was a burden on Lili, a mother who had intruded from the past, to stay for inconveniently long in the present. What was it called, when you strangled people's hopes in the future?

Crime indeed, but not fiction, she thought sadly, her thoughts drifting back to her vanished neighbours, and their missing son. Those murderings and massacres had not been imagined; those abductions, desertions, and arbitrary arrests had really happened. The crime had been hers, not theirs; she had betrayed her neighbours' trust. She had turned a deaf ear to their screams just as she had to her daughter's vulnerabilities, when Lili had first left Iran. The last thing she wanted now was to be introduced to her compatriots in this quartier. They would remind her too painfully of all that she had left unsaid, all she had lost and left undone.

That night, she dreamed of the knife sharpener's apprentice. She dreamed that she had crept out onto the balcony in Lili's flat and was spying on him when he suddently turned round and looked up at her. And she realized then that he was Ali, her own boy, with the blue marks of a whip across his heart.

And she woke up to the scream of the ambulance siren.