The villa itself was small enough and modest, standing back a little distance at the front from the pink-beige walls of the perimeter. Being the colour of baked earth, it was almost camouflaged. The casual observer might wonder at its separateness, at its standing apart for all its lack of grandeur. It was kind of defiance in itself. Perhaps this was reason enough to be thought suspicious, harbouring a mystery or something that stood aloof. Perhaps this was a provocation, for good land was hard to come by. Anyone might have designs on it, inheritance no longer guaranteeing ownership.
So, when a green car delivered three mysterious women at the end of the tarmac road, where the avenue of eucalyptus trees began, its presence in the landscape might be presumed to be something other than random or accidental. The driver opened the doors for his passengers and pointed out the government store just where the road forked. There, the women asked for directions, drawing deliberate attention to their mission. Then they made their way towards the villa, along the tarmac road, leaving the green car waiting at the dropping-off and collection point.
Neda was on the front balcony, standing on the ledge of the balustrade trying to catch a waving branch of honeysuckle. It was just out of reach. She saw figures emerge in a small movement in the distance where the eucalyptus avenue reached the triangular junction with the corner shop – a place she loved for its sweets and trinkets, plastic toys and ice cream; but a place she could never go alone. Sometimes she was allowed to go with Nizar for extra provisions, with a little shopping list they rehearsed in their heads along the way.
The French windows behind her opened into the lounge, and Neda was aware of the relaxed mood inside, the friendly company of her grandmother’s guests. The formal salutations had been repeated over and over and were almost done with, but not quite. They went on and on. Greetings were a familiar backdrop, lyrical like a spoken song. How is your brother? How is his wife? Inshallah he will bring your son home. Inshallah Allah will look kindly on him. It is all in the gift of Allah. How is Haj Salem? How is Haj Hassan? Allah will bless you for your patience, Hajja Fathia. It is all in the gift of Allah. Neda liked it. It made her feel safe.
The three figures were approaching the villa, almost the same in height, almost in step. More guests perhaps. They were between the lines of trees. Neda had a clearer view once they passed the copse of olive trees where the trenches had filled with water in the rainy season – still not cordoned off with a fence. Then the figures dropped out of sight. They had left the tarmac road which continued past the main formal entrance and chosen instead to use the pebbled edge between the villa’s longest wall and the wilderness.
In the lounge the fragrance of tea and mint told Neda it was time for tea and she might be allowed a little sip of its froth. She heard the long gurgle as Fathia poured the sweet syrup into the tea glasses. She had helped her grandmother to choose the ones etched with vine leaves and rimmed with gold. The women’s chatter bubbled up, light-hearted with talk of recent births and future weddings. Then the doorbell rang.
It was not the quiet ring of guests embarrassed by their lateness, but a series of assertive hits on the bell, each one impatiently rushing fast on the other. Neda looked through into the lounge to see her grandmother’s consternation, mirrored all around in the faces of her guests. Halaa was the only one who knew what to do. She got up to answer the bell.