The Answer Is No

By Naguib Mahfou
 
 
     The important piece of news that the new headmaster had arrived spread through the school.  She heard of it in the women teachers' common room as she was casting a final glance at the day's lessons. There was no getting away from joining the other teachers in congratulating him, and from shaking him by the hand too.  A shudder passed through her body, but it was unavoidable.
 
     "They speak highly of his abilities," said a colleague of hers. "And they talk too of his strictness."
     It had always been a possibility that might occur, and now it had.  Her pretty face paled, and a staring look came to her wide black eyes.
 
     When the time came, the teachers went in single file, decorously attired, to his open room.  He stood behind his desk as he received the men and women.  He was of medium height, with a tendency to portliness, and had a spherical face, hooked nose, and bulging eyes; the first thing that could be seen of him was a thick, puffed-up mustache, arched like a foam-laden wave.  She advanced with her eyes fixed on his chest. Avoiding his gaze, she stretched out her hand.  What was she to say? Just what the others had said?  However, she kept silent, uttered not a word,  What, she wondered, did his eyes express? His rough hand shook hers, and he said in a gruff voice, "Thanks."  She turned elegantly and moved off.
 
     She forgot her worries through her daily tasks, though she did not look in good shape. Several of the girls remarked, "Miss is in a bad mood."  When she returned to her home at the beginning of the Pyramids Road, she changed her clothes and sat down to eat with her mother.  "Everything all right?" inquired her mother, looking her in the face.
 
     "Badran, Badran Badawi," she said briefly.  "Do you remember him? He's been appointed our headmaster."
 
    "Really!"
 
     Then after a moment of silence, she said, "It's of no importance at all - it's an old and long-forgotten story."
 
     After eating, she took herself off to her study to rest for a while before correcting some exercise books.  She had forgotten him completely. No, not completely. How could he be forgotten completely? When he had first come to give her a private lesson in mathematics, she was fourteen years of age. In fact, not quite fourteen.  He had been twenty-five years older, the same age as her father.  She had said to her mother, "His appearance is a mess, but he explains things well," And her mother had said, "We are not concerned with what he looks like; what's important is how he explains things."
 
     He was an amusing person, and she got on well with him. and benefited from his knowledge.  How, then, had it happened? In her innocence she had not noticed any change in his behavior to put her on her guard. Then one day he had been left on his own with her, her father having gone to her aunt's clinic.  She had not the slightest doubts about a man she regarded as a second father. How, then, had it happened? Without love or desire on her part the thing had happened. She had asked in terror about what had occurred, and he had told her, "Don't be frightened or sad.  Keep it to yourself and I'll come and propose to you the day you come of age."
 
     And he had kept his promise and had come to ask for her hand. By then she had attained a degree of maturity that gave her an understanding of the dimensions of her tragic position. She had found that she had no love or respect for him and that he was as far as he could be from her dreams and from the ideas she had formed of what constituted an ideal an moral person. But what was to be done? Her father had passed away two years ago, and her mother had been taken aback by the forwardness of the man.  However, she had said to her, "I know your attachment to your personal independence, so I leave the decision to you."
 
     She had been conscious of the critical position she was in. She had either to accept or to close the door forever.  It was the sort of situation that could force her into something she detested. She was the rich beautiful girl, a byword in Abbaiyya for her nobility of character, and now here she was struggling helplessly in a well-sprung trap, while he looked down at her with rapacious eyes. Just as she had hated his strength, so too she hated her own weakness.  To have abused her innocence was one thing, but for him to have the upper hand now that she was fully in possession of her faculties was something else.  He had said, "So here I am, making good my promise because I love you."  He had also said, "I know of your love of teaching, and you will complete your studies at the College of Science."
 
     She had felt such anger as she had never felt before.  She had rejected coercion in the same way as she rejected ugliness.  It had meant little to her to sacrifice marriage.  She had welcomed being on her own, for solitude accompanied by self-respect was not loneliness. She had also guessed he was after her money.  She had told her mother quite straightforwardly, "No," to which her mother had replied, "I am astonished you did not make this decision from the first moment."
 
     The man had blocked her way outside and said, "How can you refuse? Don't you realize the outcome?" And she had replied with an asperity he had not expected, "For me any outcome is preferable to being married to you."
After finishing her studies, she had wanted something to do to fill her spare time, so she had worked as a teacher.  Chances to marry had come time, but she had turned her back on them all.
     "Does no one please you?" her mother asked her.
     "I know what I am doing," she had said gently.
     "But time is going by."
     "Let it go as it pleases, I am content."
 
     Day by day she becomes older. She avoids love, fears it.  With all her strength she hopes that life will pass calmly, peacefully, rather than happily.  She goes on persuading herself that happiness is not confined to love and motherhood.  Never has she regretted her firm decision.  Who knows what the morrow holds? But she was certainly unhappy that he could again make his appearance in her life, that she would be dealing with him day after day, and that he would be making of the past a living and painful present.
 
     Then, the first time he was alone with her in his room, he asked her, "How are you?"
     She answered coldly, "I'm fine."
     He hesitated slightly before inquiring, " Have you not...I mean, did you get married"
     In the tone of someone intent on cutting short a conversation, she said "I told you, I am fine."

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