Good news travels fast in Lebanon, announced quite literally from the rooftops with fireworks. But the urgent whisper of bad news travels even faster.
We know we are in the right place because there is a hearse in the road at the foot of the apartment building. We don’t need to ask which entrance. It is marked by a man in stiff black, the driver maybe, who stands guard at the bottom of a flight of steps. He is surrounded by half a dozen cellophane-wrapped bouquets which lean awkwardly against the wall. The flowers are real enough but they are grimly preserved, completely sealed behind a plastic cover. They look out of place, spilt on the grey paved floor, an accident.
We step past the driver and without a word begin to climb the stairs. We do not need to ask which floor; we keep going until we reach a door which is open. Motionless black shapes are perched on settees right, left and centre. Blank faces turn towards the door without expectation. No one moves. Finally a member of the family recognises us and steps forward to ease our awkward entry. We are shown into another room and pressed to sit, like the others there, waiting for nothing.
If this were England we wouldn’t be here, not now. We would have sent a card or flowers, made a phone call, kept our distance. We would have waited until the funeral a few days later to pay our respects in person. We feel like intruders, right there in the home of the deceased less than a day after his passing, before the family have fully realised what has happened, when the wound is raw and undressed. Not like the asepticised ceremonies days later, when the pain has been patched up and the lip restiffened. Surely I’m out of place, a stranger to him, among his closest friends and family here with their tangible grief. It’s wrong to see their pain, unnatural. But then death is unnatural, out of place. Like the plastic-covered flowers downstairs.
Perched on the long couch among the grievers, lined up like a row of blackbirds on a telegraph wire, I am ashamed of my denim skirt, not redeemed by my demure long-sleeved black cardigan. All the solemn figures around me are in top-to-toe black. Their hair accessories, their stockings, their scarves. Not a navy coat or a brown handbag in sight.
I wish I had known where we would end up that day when we left the house. But these things happen quickly here. The body in the bedroom was alive yesterday. This afternoon, after the funeral service, it will be buried. I catch a glimpse from my seat through the open doorway across the hall. He looks mildly uncomfortable, but neat, presentable.
Like his guests, but less gloomy, more composed. But like them, his hands are clasped and he too is waiting… waiting as long as it takes until he is called.