Niall Crowley is an independent consultant and believer in equality and human rights, working in Ireland and places across Europe. He is part of a prose collective in West Cork, a space that stimulates a passion long forgotten but returning to life. He is author of ‘Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel’, published by A&A Farmar in 2010, a story of public policy sabotage.
‘An Afternoon in Cairo’
By Niall Crowley
He got up as close as he could, to peer through the window over the lip of his mask. There were two of them in there, a third behind the counter. Reduce contacts was the instruction. Reluctantly, he pulled back into the neighbouring doorway.
The morning chill seemed to intensify in harsh sunlight. Cold light glared back at him off aluminium tables, queued along the café wall, more in hope than expectation. He could wait, he just hadn’t predicted this, so early in the morning. Draining his mind of all feeling, he put himself on pause.
The laneway, masquerading as plaza, yawned vacant. Concrete planters stood sullenly empty of any colour. Red laths of idle benches shone bright and pointlessly cheerful. Movement to his left recharged him. The pair bustled out the door.
They lingered chatting, one with a nose perched irritatingly over his mask. He glared as the pair embraced, before going their separate ways. Keep your distance was the order. He nudged the door open with his foot and slipped in the gap.
The dispenser belched empty, despite insistent pressure. With the one hand now out of action, he fumbled with the other for his own tube. The clinical whiff soothed him, as he smeared both hands. At last, he could lose himself in browsing.
He poked at the piles on a table loudly labelled ‘Mind Body Spirit’. Mindfulness was not something he could just do by decision. Emotional resilience sounded like a life’s work. The disbursement of wellbeing on offer did not match the grinding of the times. Purpose was his problem, a concern still in need of an author apparently.
‘Local History’ would be more promising. Shipwrecks around the coast, famine graveyards, Spanish invaders and Irish insurgents. He would happily go back and spend time there. There was little new, though, in these piles. He’d been there, done that, when it came to this display.
The ‘Book of the Month’ exhibit grabbed his attention. Mahfouz, he had thought him dead for years. Eighteen tales discovered by Naguib’s daughter after his death. Cairo and its Gamaliya district brought to life again by the master of the genre. He needed no second invitation.
Muffled greetings emanated from behind the counter screen. Was that condescension he saw in those eyes or just distaste? He proffered the book to scan, his card for tapping, and brusque equally-muffled gratitude. He poked at the door with his elbow, before giving in and pulling it open with one strained finger.
Hands sanitised, he pulled off his mask and sucked in crisp cool air, relieved and refreshed. Down the lane, past Mother Hubbards. Normally, he would have gone in for a full Irish and a quick read. He would have met Pat there too, on occasion.
This was supposed to be a time for introverts. Stop socialising was the requirement. It gave a free pass for introverts, the pressures to engage disarmed. It didn’t feel like that. There was still WhatsApp, texts, phone calls, Skype, Zoom and more to navigate and contend with.
Worse really, he found he missed actual personal contact, missed the lift it gave him. He never needed lots, but, clearly, he did need some. In its virtual form, the buzz was too short lived. Breakfast with Pat would have been a boost.
He stepped off the pavement and walked out along the street. It was safer that way. They could have the pavements with their cavalier refusal to move to one side. Step back was the demand. He had perfected a walk that hugged parked cars, always without touching. Passing traffic couldn’t come near, the most he risked was the brush of a wing mirror.
Turning down Pearse Street, Captain Perry’s former residence came into view, ostentatious in its cast iron pillars, haughty verandas, and latticed railings. It delighted him, but always seemed out of place. It would have been better suited to the outskirts of Mahfouz’s Cairo, a colonial intrusion more at home in hotter climes. He was eager to reacquaint himself with Gamaliya, its nooks and crannies, its inhabitants. A warm fire and an open book, he could head off into the backstreets of Cairo, no longer a hostage to disease in this benighted town.
At the fork on the road, he paused by the estuary wall undecided. The slow breathing heave of glass-like water offered an accessible mindfulness. The Scilly Walk could not be crowded in this cold, but he was later than normal. A clear blue sky beckoned him on. A few white sail boats bobbed and stalked like birds of prey across the harbour.
The trees up the slope across the estuary were bleeding shades of brown, warning of harsher times. One tree, leaning out over the water, held two, no three, herons. The imperative of social distancing was not their concern. They perched statuesque in prehistoric grandeur, staring blankly, waiting for the kill or maybe just on pause. He took the high road and made for safety, with numbing determination. There was, at least, the promise of an afternoon in Cairo.