IThe street was already clear from yesterday’s snow though patches still reflected luminous white from the bare earth of the mountainside. The brushes, tins, knives and rubber heels in Hosein’s wooden cart rattled as its wheels stuttered over the gravel left behind from the salt trucks. A Peykan taxi trundled past in low gear, pulling its thick steel carcass up the hill without complaint like a passive mule. Snow had again not been forthcoming this year, the extended autumn was proving as dry and bright as the summer. Though his grandfather’s orchard in the north had been sold long ago, out of habit, Hosein wondered whether the mild winter would snap suddenly and decisively like the year before and throttle the unripe fruit of the orange trees.
Up ahead, a four-wheel drive attempted a handbrake turn but could only manage a disappointing two metre skid, grinding the gravel into the unrelenting asphalt with a scrape. The gleaming hulk sped away and Hosein could again hear the rattle which attended the wheels of his hand-built cart. He neared the corner where the street turned back on itself and climbed further up the mountainside. He stopped and felt a breeze, chilled by the snowy peaks above, waft down and touch the light sweat on his forehead. He closed his eyes, breathed, and frigid air stung a little on the inside of his sinuses. “Allah-e Shokr”, he whispered to himself, moved by the alternate sensations of heat from the pale winter sunlight and the ripples of cold in the air.
On the last Friday of every month, Hosein the Kaffash brought his work up to this pleasant part of town, perched high on the Tochal foothills, detached from the polluted inner-city air. The neighbourhood knew him well enough by now for many of the residents of the forty or so low-rise apartment buildings to keep any shoes in need of repair at home, anticipating his next visit, rather than carry them to Tajrish Square where two other cobblers plied their trade on the steps by the bank.
Hosein turned and saw that his son had fallen some way behind. “Ali-jaan, come to daddy, come on!” At his father’s call Ali broke into a staccato run. Thick layers of clothing under his puffer jacket made it difficult for his arms to swing and he held them out stiffly to his sides, the yellow woollen bobble on his winter hat bounced with each tiny stride. Now nearly seven years old, Ali was old enough to accompany his father on his Friday rounds, a convenience which gave father and son their only prolonged contact during the week and Mariam some respite at home, though for this Hosein sacrificed his day of rest.
Hosein the kaffash knelt down in front of his son from whose mouth steam-laden breath was pumping out in short gusts. His wide, pebble-black eyes blinked twice and opened to their widest and the boy smiled as Hosein pulled off his hat, dried off his hot brow with a gloved hand and ruffled his son’s matted hair.
IIAli stood mutely observing a mean-looking black and white tomcat while his father climbed the steps of another of the three-storey blocks. The cat pleaded at regular intervals with a persistent howl issuing from the depths of unfulfilled hunger and lust. A middle-aged woman with no headscarf appeared at a second floor window to toss down a plastic bag of chicken bones. The bones half spilled onto the paving stones and the sound of the mesh screen sliding shut scratched the prevailing hush. Hosein rang the first floor buzzer and could hear the cat pawing at the plastic bag for a few seconds before the click of the intercom and a woman’s voice.
“Good morning miss, I’m the kaffash. If you have any shoes to shine or repairs for me I’m at your service.”
“Oh, I see…. Let me ask my husband… Mehrdad!”
Another click and the intercom fell silent. Hosein rang the second and third floor buzzers but no answer came to disturb the greedy, hollow sound of the cat’s hard teeth on bare bones. Hosein shifted his cart into a bright triangle which the sun threw over the steps up to the entrance. From it he withdrew a tattered square of coarsely woven stuff cut from the thick material of a motorcycle saddlebag which he placed on the first step where he would sit. A man he recognised from previous visits emerged wearing a long overcoat over a casual t-shirt carrying a pair of black leather shoes in one hand.
“Salaam Agha, I’m sorry but it’s just these today. You repaired them the last time you were here, may your hands not hurt! If you could just shine them for me and leave them inside the front door when you finish.”
He handed the shoes down from his place on the landing and opened his wallet. He drew out a crisp two thousand toman note and both men’s eyes held the folded blue rectangle for a shared moment from opposite sides of a great divide.
“It has no value, I’m at your service.” Hosein offered his ta’arof, the ritual refusal to be payed, but the money was already in his hand. The shoes had lost little of the shine that Hosein himself had put on them a month before and with every stroke of his brush he fought off the sense that he was in league with the mendicant accordian players and street sweepers who rang the same doorbells for small change. His eyes narrowed on the smudged outline of his own face which was beginning to emerge on the shoe in his blackened hand.
The door of the next block opened and an amply-proportioned female form emerged, draped in a pale grey floral print chador. She edged sideways to plant her feet on the first step, directly opposite where Hosein was sitting, one hand holding the moulded concrete bannister and the other cradling a tray against her bosom.
“Ali, go and help the lady. Quick!”
Without a word, the boy ran to the bottom of the steps, slipping and saving himself from a fall with both his hands. He beat his gloves free of the still fresh snow.
“Careful now, Ali.” Hosein observed the handover with as much care as the woman and young Ali executed it. “May your hands not hurt, you’ve made so much effort, thank you ma’am. Say thank you Ali,” to which Ali responded with a straightforward, “merci.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, I’m so ashamed,” the woman replied with a self-deprecating chuckle. She had a round face and a turned up nose. With her arms concealed under her grey chador she looked comically like an owl. “I’ll ask my grandson if he has any work for you,” she said.
Calling on Imam Ali for strength, the old woman hauled herself back up the steps with the same determined effort with which she had descended. Hosein rested the tray on his wooden cart and as father and son shared the unfamiliar tasting food, the relentless mewing of the vagrant black and white cat began once again. Hosein tossed him a scrap which did nothing to silence him.
© William Yong, 2009