He brought the news to his wife. They conversed at the table and then on the balcony. They both wondered whether Qasim Fahmi would keep his post or fall with the government. The bey was one of those members of the current regime known for infighting. Thus there was no hope he could stay on should the cabinet resign. Mahgub commented, “If the bey is pensioned off, I’ll definitely be transferred to some obscure position—unless I’m banished to the most rural district—and my long-range hopes will become impossible—if I’m not fired outright.”
Had he struggled this hard only to meet such a sad fate? Was this the reward for his audacity, spirit of adventure, and contempt for everything? Filled with sorrow and grief he began to gaze at his wife with eyes that saw nothing. Ihsan was no less sad and glum than he. She also brooded about the future, imagining what she might expect. She was not much concerned about a deflation of long-term dreams but was oppressed by the jolt to her current security. Would she actually lose this luxurious, comfortable life? Would the spring that provided water for her thirsty family run dry? Would she find herself some day in one of those rural towns as a dingy home’s mistress whose life revolved around caring for it and tending to its master? These notions were more like nightmares. She did not know how she could face them on the morrow if they became real. It was clear, however, that this information was premature, for there was no echo of it in the newspapers, which they began to read carefully. Many of their friends declared that the time had not yet come. The days of August passed quietly, one after the other, till their feeling of confidence returned. Indeed Mahgub remembered his parents and wondered what he should do about them. This time with resolute determination he wrote his father a letter in which he expressed his sorrow at being unable to assist him. He stated that he was still looking for work and promised relief soon. He told himself, to clear his conscience, that the man could wait another month or two till he could assist him under more favorable circumstances. But his peace of mind did not last. The news that Ahmad Badir had announced resurfaced at the beginning of the next month. So many rumors were flying that the air was full of them. The horizons continued to presage impending disaster. The couple returned to their reflections as various fears gripped them.
Mahgub met with his boss Salim al-Ikhshidi in his office one day to ask what was happening. He found the man as calm and collected as ever. Mahgub was not unduly swayed by this calm and composure, because he knew for a fact that al-Ikhshidi would not relinquish these even in a crisis. When the man’s round eyes looked up at him inquisitively, the young man, who was still standing, asked, “What are the facts behind these rumors that are on every tongue?”
In a voice that had lost not an iota of its authority, al-Ikhshidi asked, “What rumors?”
“That the government will fall. What’s behind them?”
“Whatever is,” al-Ikhshidi replied with a smile.
“Is it really possible for this alliance to end?”
Swept up by a mischievous desire to torment him, al-Ikhshidi replied, “Everything is transitory.”
Since his soul would not allow him to deny this, he smiled mysteriously and said confidently, “Just be patient. Perceptive people will not have long to wait.”
“How about a reassuring comment?”
As his desire to torment Mahgub returned, he asked, feigning ignorance, “What’s scaring you?”
The young man’s bulging eyes widened in astonishment and he raised his eyebrows. Then he retorted sarcastically, “Aswan’s beautiful in August!”
Al-Ikhshidi shrugged his shoulders dismissively and replied, “Any place glory flourishes is fine.”
“So the rumors are well-founded then.”
Al-Ikhshidi was silent for a moment while he searched for an answer that would not make him look like a fool in the near future or thereafter. Then he said, “No one knows even now; beyond that, well, politics is crazy.”
Enraged and resentful, Mahgub returned to his office, telling himself: Mrs. Umm Salim’s son wants me to think he’s an astute politician. Damn him!
At noon, the ministry was filled with the rumor that the cabinet actually had resigned. Someone said he had telephoned Bulkeley and that the report had been confirmed. The office workers were agitated in a way seen only when cabinets fall. They congregated in the corridors speaking in raised voices about the new ministers. Mahgub was very upset and there was a glum look in his eyes. The messenger came to tell him that Qasim Bey had left the ministry. He contacted al-Ikhshidi by phone to ask which direction the bey had been heading when he left. He replied he didn’t know. Mahgub spoke with a bunch of friends in the different ministries—by telephone—and received these responses. “What news do you have, so-and-so?” “The situation is critical. What’s the latest news, sir?” “Shit. Anything new, so-and-so?” “They hit the one-eyed man’s good eye. Have you heard the strange rumors, my dear?” “About the cabinet? To hell, sir.” And so forth, until he felt certain that the cabinet was in its final throes.
His telephone rang, and it was his wife, Ihsan. He felt apprehensive. “Have you heard the news?”
“Yes. It resigned.”
“How do you know?”
“A special edition of the newspapers.”
“I’m calling to reassure you.”
“How? This doesn’t make sense.”
“No, it makes a lot of sense. I’ll give you the details when you come home. For now, you should know that the bey told me the new cabinet will be different but that the alliance remains intact.”
“I have some other news that will delight you. You’ll hear it when you return.”
She hung up, and then the young man immediately rose and left the room. On the way home he heard newspaper vendors proclaiming as loudly as possible the fall of the government. Interest and excitement were in the air everywhere. Despotism was routed, the bloodshedder had been toppled, and the rope of tyranny had been removed from the necks of the Egyptians, or almost. No one felt the delight he did, and had it not been for the good word from his wife he would have burst into tears. He found Ihsan waiting for him. She received him with a sweet smile and proceeded to tell him her news. She repeated in person what she had said over the telephone and then asked him, “Do you know who your new minister is?”
He asked her in amazement, “Who?”
“Qasim Bey Fahmi.”
He stared at her dumbfounded, blushed, and then asked her, “Did he tell you that?”
He was overwhelmed by a feeling of relief and delight, but that did not last long. He was soon picking at his left eyebrow as he said, “Minister! I wish he had kept his current post. A cabinet post is a transitory thing, not a life appointment. Who will be there for us tomorrow?”
But his suspicion had no effect on her. She imagined that the cabinet post was her own. She replied incredulously, “He’s the minister. Don’t you understand?”
“Yes, darling. It’s a happy opportunity. It’s just that cabinets are as short-lived as happy dreams. It will resign sooner or later and then we’ll find ourselves without a patron or at the mercy of merciless enemies.”
She did not respond. He communicated his infectious anxiety to her, and she secretly cursed it. Thinking quickly and with penetration, the young man began to weigh matters and their possibilities. Then he said, “This is our last chance. So either we know how to exploit it and we’re on easy street or we let it slip from our hands and are disgraced.”
Their eyes met. She grasped what he meant but waited till he explained his idea. Mahgub continued, “If he resigns when we’re in a reasonable position, we won’t have to regret his resignation.”
Then after a short silence, he concluded, “I must join his office staff.”
“As his secretary?”
“Is it possible to leap from the sixth to the fourth level?”
“I could be promoted to fifth in lieu of fourth. In the civil service there are interpretations broad enough to allow anything. What do you think?”
She bit her lip to hide her proud smile. She understood that any level to which he ascended was tantamount to hers. She entertained no doubt that the hoped-for fourth level could preserve her at the standard of living she currently enjoyed. She sincerely shared his feelings and stammered in a low voice, “I don’t think he would refuse me any request.”
So he responded enthusiastically and supportively, “Go for it. Go for it, champ! Our destiny rests on the result of your efforts.”
The next morning he picked up al-Ahram with interest and looked at the front page. He ran his eyes down a column of photographs, pictures of the new ministers, and found what he was looking for in the middle: a picture of Qasim Bey Fahmi. So his eyes rested on it, and he sighed deeply. Was it possible that his hope would be realized? Could a kiss, a look, or a sigh transport him from one status to another and promote him from one rank to the other?