Chapter 7 : Friends and Allies
During the days that followed I had the feeling my fortunes had changed; that circumstances, both inner and outer, had loosened themselves from the grip of a force which had held them in a state of torpor. I met each day with a renewed energy and enthusiasm: for my journey and my quest, for the city in which I found myself, and for life around me. A long, searingly hot summer, which dried up river beds and laid waste to whole areas of land, was coming to an end. Due to the changing season, passage between Alexandria and countries bordering the northern shores of the Mediterranean was now effectively closed; seas were tempestuous and dangerously unpredictable, and only the most foolhardy sailors attempted the crossing. Having discharged the worst of its heat, the sun grew bearable. Temperate winds found the Egyptian coast, stirring the lives of the people like embers of an inferno resurrected as a gentle flame. The city’s inhabitants breathed air scented with the fragrance of cumin ground fresh from the seed. Wild lavender, harvested in armfuls by old women and children, was sold on street corners wherever there was passing trade. Tempers previously fuelled by the sun were now cooled by fresh breezes carried from the ocean, and life in the bustling streets of the city seemed to lessen its fervour.
Fewer vessels sailing into port meant fewer merchants and sailors seeking shelter at the hostelry. Whereas previously the building had been bursting at the seams with visitors and frantic with shouts and cries from sunrise to dusk, now it was as if a calm had settled into the eaves, wafting through half-empty hallways. Having grown tired of the confines of my room I had taken to walking in the rear courtyard where chickens and geese wandered purposefully, squawking and pecking at grubs among the cracks in the paving. Often I would sit on an old barrel in a sunny corner, where jasmine and thyme had seeded themselves in a cracked urn and an overgrown juniper sprawled over the low roof of the cattle house in a mist of brightly coloured berries. Here, on this bench, the passage of the world seemed halted and I imagined I felt the pulse of the earth beneath the flagstones of the yard.
Even the hostelry owner seemed cheered by the mellow heat of the sun’s rays. He exchanged a few words with me one morning as I sat in this favourite spot, sunning myself like a hawk perched on a lofty cliff edge. I was surprised when he approached, a pail of animal feed in one hand and a great basket filled with tools and wooden stathes in the other. Barely a word had been exchanged between us, and I found myself wondering if I had not inadvertently failed to pay him my previous week’s board. He availed himself of pail and basket, straightened his tunic, and waved off the grey and white goat which had followed him like a shadow across the yard. There was something in his manner that suggested a man ill-at-ease with polite conversation, or any meeting that did not involve business of some kind.
Neither of us spoke, but we acknowledged each other with a discreet nod of the head. We might have been two strangers passing on an empty road in the middle of a desert. I made room for him on the barrel, which was only just large enough for two, but instead he squatted next to me, leaning his weight against the stone wall at our backs. We sat this way for what seemed an age. Just as the silence between us was becoming heavy and awkward, he shifted position a little and began to speak.
“The grain trade will suffer if these rough seas carry on much longer.” He picked up a stone and turned it over in the palm of his hand, testing its weight and tracing the smooth edges with his thumb. “Mean times are no good for the pockets.”
“I’m not used to these coastal seasons,” I replied weakly, sensing the inadequacy of this response. “How long before sailing returns to these waters?”
“Depends. Could be days, could be weeks. Those currents are coming from the farthest tip of Spain and Africa. Treacherous. Ships blown off course and smashed to pieces on the rocks; men too… washed up like old bits of cloth.” He turned his head and looked at me sideways, squinting a little as he faced the sun. “Where are you headed? Looking for work?”
The directness of his questions disarmed me and I found myself scrabbling for a response that might satisfy him without giving too much away of my circumstances.
“I’ve travelled west… from Judea.”
“That’s a journey. What you hoping to find here in Egypt, passage to Rome?”
Perhaps it was an innocent question, but instantly I felt an old guardedness surface. I found myself willing this man gone, with all his questions and directness. Something of the warmth and ease of the morning was threatening to turn sour. Still, I tried to answer his question as best I could without seeming rude.
“I’ve been thinking to continue my journey… west towards Cyrene. An old friend of my family lives there and has promised me work. A cloth merchant. It’s time I moved on anyway; I only meant to stay a week, perhaps two, but…” The rest of my sentence was lost in a storm of my own thoughts and I could not help wonder why I was still here, still in Alexandria, after so many weeks. What had I hoped to find among these crowded streets? What had I been doing with my time? It was as if those forces which had guided me on this journey – had enfolded me and steered each step towards a purpose I had yet to fully understand – now had as much reason to keep me here, waiting for I knew not what.
The hostelry owner stared at me with that directness that was so discomforting. It was a look wholly without embarrassment, as if he was turning over my words in the same way he turned over the stone in his hand, weighing them up for size. It occurred to me he possessed something of the sharpness I had seen on the streets of Alexandria, a curiosity which assessed you at a glance. And yet, in this man, the easy banter was absent and in its place was a reserve bordering on the sullen. I felt this was not intentional, nor did it seem to hold malice of any kind; it was just the way he was. I chastised myself silently for judging this stranger so readily when I myself was equally reserved, perhaps as sullen, as he.
“Well,” he continued after a further pause, “you’re not the first traveller to be caught up in this city. Some say it’s a hard place to leave, but I wouldn’t know about that.”
Once again the man seemed to sink back into the shadows of his thoughts, which I sensed as if they were a presence between us. In many ways he reminded me of my own father: a man of few words and lengthy, storm-stricken silences which engulfed our whole house and its inhabitants. Even as that thought came I wondered, not for the first time on this journey, what my mother and father would be doing in my absence. Were they also thinking of me? Did they talk about me or imagine where I was? Perhaps not? It would be Tishri back home: the beginning of the first rains and the ploughing of the fields before the olive harvest. The activity of the entire village would be fixed on the tasks of the season and the slow turning of the earth, from bustling intensity to slumber, and from harvesting through to planting new life for the seasons to come. There would be little time to reflect on anything that did not arise from the land itself. It was a hard life, made harder if you allowed your imagination to wander from the task at hand. Nature was both sustenance and correction; a weaver of dreams and a ruthless taskmaster bending the will and binding the soul. When I thought about life here in Alexandria it was like comparing two distinct worlds. Yet, for all its vigour and marvel, its colours and contradictions, was life in this city really so different to life back home?
For some while we sat there in the courtyard, each of us preoccupied with our thoughts and our stories. I was tempted to believe I had managed to elude further interrogation. However, just moments later my hopes were destroyed as he fixed me again with that stare. When at last he spoke, his voice had changed, softened. Now it sounded hesitant, almost bashful.
“I have a cousin living in Cyrene. Haven’t spoken to him in years. Decent man; a glassblower… lives on his own.”
I nodded at this information, not knowing what answer was expected.
“If you like,” he continued, “that is, if you’re travelling that way, you should ask for him. Almost everyone knows him; there’s only one glassblower in the town. His name is Femi. When you see him, tell him I sent you and he’s sure to offer you a room if that’s what you need… work too if trade is good.”
This unexpected twist in the conversation took me by surprise. It seemed I had been wrong in my appraisal of the man and now his unexpected generosity shamed me. Had I been on my own for so long I could no longer recognise a friend? I tried to gather myself and even managed a few words of thanks. Then, another small miracle, the ghost of a smile flickered at the creases of his mouth, an expression so fleeting I might easily have missed it altogether.
Before I could say more, the hostelry owner was climbing to his feet and heading off to his next task. He collected his pail and basket and muttered some curse at the grey and white goat which had poked its head around the side of the barn and was now trotting over to meet him. Once again I was left to my thoughts, to the relative peace of the courtyard, and to a feeling of disquiet that would linger for the rest of the day.