My sister’s wedding is approaching. When I told the neighbours about it, the congratulations were accompanied by fits of giggling that mystified me until my friend Farah tracked me down, took me by the elbow, and hissed, “Vicky, when you talk about weddings, I want you to say urus, OK? Not urs.”
“What’s wrong with urs?”
“It’s the way you say it. You are telling everyone that you are looking forward to your sister’s bastard.”
Once this little linguistic mishap was out of the way, the neighbourhood took great interest in the wedding, especially the older women. “Vicky, this is very good news about your sister!” Abeer beamed, hobbling in on her cane. I gritted my teeth (literally) and girded my loins (metaphorically) for what was to come. “Yes, she’s -”
“She is setting you a good example!”
“Well, I – “
“You are beautiful! So beautiful! Thin! And tall!”
“Well, above average, but not really what I’d consider t – “
“It can be a problem for tall women to have husbands.”
I threw a helpless glance at the paper cut-out of the Virgin Mary that is pinned up on the wall. Holy Mother, I don’t know if you were tall, middling, or so vertically challenged that you needed a stepladder to get on the donkey, but help me out here. Please. Unfortunately Heaven was not in the mood to hear my prayers. Abeer steamrollered on.
“But in your country there are many nice tall men, so it will not be a problem for you when you start looking. Why don’t you look?”
I floundered. “I – I…” Her silence (highly unusual) seemed accusing. “I’m busy,” I concluded feebly.
“Now, Vicky, listen to me,” and she manoeuvered round my desk to the kettle, suddenly brisk and businesslike. “You need to get married in order to get babies.”
At this opportune moment one of the children ran in excitedly to show me a flattering neo-impressionist portrait that he had made of me. (When I work out how to scan construction paper that is covered in clumpy glue, crayon fragments, and leaves, I may show it to you – it was drawn from my best side.) I looked up at Abeer ironically. “Do you think I have a shortage of children in this place?”
She tutted in sympathy and pushed a tendril of hair behind my ear. “Habibti, they are not your own. It is not the same.”
I had a sudden flashback to the last time I had visited some friends in Jerusalem, an orthodox Jewish family living in Qatamon. They take a similarly keen interest in my matrimonial prospects. Not for the first time, I wondered about the possibility of orchestrating a peace meeting between them and the matrons of northern Bethlehem. They could form a deep and passionate bond over the contents of my uterus. But before I had the opportunity to float this idea to the office at large, Abeer was continuing with her speech.
“If you don’t get married soon your body will stop working, and” – she lowered her voice to a gravelly whisper – “you will have to get your babies from tubes!”
I choked on the cup of tea I had just poured, trying my hardest not to laugh. “Abeer, I am twenty-five years old.”
“And I am sixty-five! At your age I did not think that time would pass so quickly. When you get to be like me, all you will want is to look at your grandchildren and be happy. Now, if you get married and have babies now, maybe you will have some grandchildren before you are fifty.”
I had a suspicion that she had been sitting in the hallway with a calculator, working out a precise reproductive schedule for my benefit. Before she could present me with it I hastily filled her glass with tea and dashed out to the kitchen on the pretext of getting some fresh mint and a plateful of biscuits, suppressing a smile as I went. If there is one effective way for diverting people’s attention in Bethlehem, it’s food. No wonder I gain weight out here.