Once, Nora had followed a woman in red shoes. She wore a long silky skirt that came down to her ankles, and her shoes were just like those Nora’s sister had worn the last time she saw her: low heeled with a small buckle, so cute they almost looked like children’s shoes.
Nora got up from the sofa where she had been curled up for hours, plunging in and out of dreams without closing her eyes, almost falling off each time she turned over. She went over to the window and looked outside. The small iron-barred window was so high up, almost at the ceiling, that she could only see out of it if she stood up. She lifted herself onto her tiptoes, trying to see the colour of the sky. From between the buildings, she could make out pieces of clouds of various shades of grey that softly covered the blue. Her face turned towards that thin slice of blue, she breathed in deeply; the window looked out onto the pavement, and as she stood there, she saw three pairs of feet pass by: a young woman in high heels, an old woman dragging a trolley along behind her − she must have been on her way back from the market −, and a man wearing moccasins and jeans. Nora tried to guess the man’s age: going by his walking pace, the model of his shoes, and the way he ironed his trousers, he couldn’t be over forty.
She had been playing this guessing game ever since she moved here, or rather, ever since she had taken shelter here. After losing her job and being thrown out of her house, she had used what was left of her money to rent this so-called apartment, once the building’s boiler room, it had been turned into a living space when the building was fitted with central heating by adding a shoddy kitchen and toilet. Nora’s apartment wasn’t quite on the seventh floor of hell, but it was two stories underground. Thankfully a street ran perpendicular to the building right in front of her window, allowing her to see a part of the sky that was visible at the end of that street. Nora could only see the people who passed by the building from the knees down. She would try to guess the ages of these faceless people by looking at their shoes, their socks, the way they walked, and the thickness of their legs; sometimes she tried to paint a picture in her mind of the rest of their bodies and their faces. But she could never know whether her guesses were right: even if she ran straight outside, they were long gone, disappearing into the crowds.
Once, Nora had followed a woman in red shoes. She wore a long silky skirt that came down to her ankles, and her shoes were just like those Nora’s sister had worn the last time she saw her: low heeled with a small buckle, so cute they almost looked like children’s shoes. Nora had just put on her coat to head out the door when she threw a last glance at the window and noticed the red-shoed woman. She rushed straight outside, climbing the stairs two at a time and throwing herself out of the front door, then ran like crazy in the direction the woman had been heading, scanning everybody’s shoes as she ran. Just when she had lost hope, she saw the red-shoed woman among a group of people waiting at the bus stop. Nora walked faster in the hope that she would see her face. Her heart was pounding, she was overcome by a strange excitement, as though this woman could really be her sister. As she was about to approach the woman, the bus swept into the stop, swallowing up the red-shoed woman and whisking her off to some unknown destination. Nora walked home filled with an indescribable melancholy, it was all was so absurd, yet at the same time felt so real.
When Nora first moved here, she would play this guessing game of rushing outside to try to find the owners of the feet that passed by her window to see if she had got it right more often. These last few years seemed to have added ten years to her life. You know how they say that time has a measure, well, for Nora, every hour seemed to comprise three or four times the minutes, and each minute seemed to hold three or four hours.
It was almost three years since she had been fired from her last job at the textile workshop. For a while she was earning no money other than what she got for her piecework of embroidery and beading. The few pennies she had managed to put aside had all gone to the rent, to this boiler room she called home.
Since her flat was part of the apartment building’s common areas, her rent was used for communal expenses, maintenance, and cleaning. This meant that Nora found herself with multiple landlords, and everyone in the building wanted their say. Every single month, the first thing they would all do was ask whether or not Nora had paid the rent; when they learned she hadn’t, everyone who saw her would have something to say.
Thursday. Apartment number one: You’re late again.
Tuesday. Apartment number five: But look, that’s how many months now? The more it adds up, the harder it’ll be for you.
Sunday. Number twelve: You see sweetheart, in this day and age, nobody puts anyone up for free. We’re tenants too, you know. We pay our rent on the third of the month, regular as clockwork. It’s the first thing we do. Debt in rent is like a debt in your honour.
Wednesday. Number three: I’m the building supervisor so everyone comes to me. I can’t put them off any longer. They’re all really complaining about it.
Monday. Number eight: They’re saying we should bring in the bailiffs, I thought you should know. I said we shouldn’t be so harsh, but after all, it is the building’s common area. There's only so much I can do.
Saturday. Number six: My mum says you have to pay up or she’ll call the police, I swear. The apartment's filthy as shit because of you. She says you should pay up or clean up.
Friday. Nine: I’m going to Friday prayers, when I come back...
‘God damn you.’
That’s what Nora said under her breath. And so partly for that reason, so as not to cross paths with those people, she didn’t want to go outside. She wanted to shut herself up in her house, to bury herself in the sofa with a blanket over her head, to set out on a long journey to the depths of the earth.
She dusted all of the furniture in the house for the third time. It was dirty from all the grime from the cars that passed by, from the construction site a little way down... Even though she didn’t open the window, all the dirt and dust from the street found its way inside. And for some reason, touching these few things... even if it was with the excuse of dusting them down... these things that she owned, that were suffused with her mother’s scent, that her big sister had touched, that carried the bittersweet joys of her childhood, that were worthless yet so valuable, that had never abandoned her, that had always, meekly, silently, been there by her side... was good... for her... soul.
She opened the fridge. There was some yoghurt. A cat meowed.
Nora looked at the window: A tiny ginger cat was peering inside, meowing so loudly its throat might tear open, looking for its mother in the wrong place. But nobody ever teaches you where to look for a mother, people look for their mother wherever they want, so do cats.
The cat looked at Nora, its eyes wide with surprise. What do you have to be surprised about, wondered Nora. Feeling a gaze upon her, even if it was that of a cat, Nora absent-mindedly tidied her hair. The cat continued its dreadful wailing. Nora realised she was hungry. It was almost evening, and she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She rummaged around the cupboards and found a little flour... Maybe she could make dumplings. There was nothing else in the house. It then occurred to Nora that the cat might be hungry too.
‘Idiot,’ she thought, ‘Go sit in front of a butcher or a grocery store. You had to come meow at Nora with her bare cupboards?’
The cat wouldn’t shut up. Nora turned her back to it. She wiped down the bronze-framed mirror with the cloth in her hand. ‘I wonder how much this is worth,’ she thought. But who would buy it? Where would she sell it? Who would she sell it to? Nora was ashamed of the thoughts that passed through her mind. This mirror was a family heirloom; it held the reflections of her mother and her sister. Nora breathed on the mirror and drew a heart in the fogged-up spot with her finger. The cat continued to cry. Nora wiped the mirror with a dry cloth and the heart disappeared.
The cat’s meows were insistent. ‘Go away,’ said Nora pointing towards the street. ‘Get lost!’ She didn’t want the window to get dirty, cleaning it was no easy task. Even if she stood on a chair it was hard to reach. She wished the cat would just go elsewhere.
The cat continued to cry, but more quietly now, as though it were ashamed. Nora brought her finger up to her lips and said, ‘Shhhh!’ The cat fell silent. Nora took the flour from the cupboard, and the cat began to cry again. Once again Nora gestured to the cat with her finger, ‘Shhhh!’ It fell silent again. Whenever she gestured to the cat to be quiet its cries would stop before starting up again the moment her finger left her lips. This made Nora laugh, though she was in no mood for laughter.
Nora took the yoghurt from the fridge to give half of it to the cat. She opened the window and placed the yoghurt bowl down in front of the cat, who attacked it as though it hadn’t eaten for days. The cat finished the yoghurt in a flash then walked away, licking the yoghurt from its whiskers.
Nora sifted the flour into a bowl, just like her sister used to do. She made a well in the flour, luckily she had eggs. She broke an egg right in the middle of the dough. The yolk looked up at her like a large yellow eye. When she was a child, her mum would let her and her sister break the yolks with their fingers. The two girls, laughing, would vie to be the first. Nora stuck her finger into the egg yolk twice. Once for herself, once for her sister.
She gradually added water as she kneaded the dough, her ears ringing with the laughter of two young girls. Somebody yelled incessantly: ‘Nora! Nora...!!! Come here... Come on Nora, come here.’
Nora kneaded the dough. She kneaded it without stopping. Two young girls were watching her. When the dough reached the right consistency, she started rolling it out on the kitchen surface, her hands quick and adept. She occasionally dusted the counter with flour so the dough wouldn’t stick. The two girls giggled as they blew on the flour; their mother would have brandished the rolling pin at them and said, ‘Get out of my way you little monkeys. Come on, off with you, outside.’ Without arguing, the girls would run off outside.
Now the girls’ voices came from a little further away. On the countertop lay a neat circle of dough, as round as the moon. Nora picked up a knife and cut lines in the dough, first horizontally, then vertically. The girls’ voices faded into the distance. By the time she had cut the last square of dough, Nora could no longer hear their voices, the only sound was the irregular hum of the fridge.
Nora scoured the kitchen, looking for something to put inside the dumplings. There was no meat, no cheese, she didn’t even have any onions left. It had been weeks since she’d been to a shop. Nora had nothing but a sheet of dough cut into neat squares.
A small teardrop fell from Nora’s eye and landed in the middle of one of the squares. Struck by the pale light, the teardrop shone like a diamond. Nora picked up that piece of dough and sealed it off into a small pouch.
She sat down in a chair, her teardrop dumpling in her hand, her shoulders suddenly heavy with exhaustion, she looked up at the window to see that the little cat had returned and was sitting there silently, looking back at her.
English translator: Kate Ferguson