There were two black holes where his canine teeth should be. His skin was sun beaten and his beard a wispy collection of white hairs. The once white colour of his clothing had faded to match the grey-yellow of the desert behind him. Balanced on his head was a washed out red pagrii with a white pattern. Barefoot and cross-legged, he sat waiting and wanting nothing in particular. A customer would come today, but there was no reason for concern.
The man's Yemeni assistant, a man of 27 but with the mind of a 10-year-old boy, was beating the dust out of the carpets. Simultaneously, he was conversing with another man; it was the man who owned the garden supplies shop next door. All day, except for Friday mornings, the three sat in collective presence. Their shops were half-built, half-open structures alongside a single lane highway. If fortune blessed them, some tourists from Dubai would stop on their way to a weekend in Musandam. One sale, at a markup of course, would be a fine day's work.
Tourists for their own part had only to awkwardly shift their eyes during this segment of their drive. Just around the bend, they would be able to enjoy the Omani forges dipping into the sea - ideally at sunset. There they could marvel at unblemished natural beauty, dive with the dolphins, lounge by the pool, drink too much, that sort of thing. Despite ambitions, developments to construct a true Omani Riviera hadn't taken effect yet. The separatist piece of Oman remained a haunt for tourists, fishermen and smugglers motor boating cigarettes back and forth to Iran.
The Emirates' side of the border didn't inspire as much exoticism or romance. Where the other side of the border appeared pristine, its neighbour looked grey. Cows and donkeys lounged about on the side of the road, vacantly starring at the passing pilgrims of leisure. Even the rocks that barely classified as mountains took on the shade of cigarette ash. The sand was a poor excuse for desert sand, as it contained none of the striking reds or oranges. The wind in these parts did not design elaborate patterns on its surface. The scent was not oud, but a mix of industrial burning, animal dung and curried cuisine. The heat made everything appear paralysed. It was the sort of sight that made the tourists from Dubai shrug their shoulders and murmur, "It's like crossing into a different world."
That was more or less what Michael had said to his wife, Justine, though at this particular moment she wasn't interested in his commentary. Her husband had, despite her advice, made a wrong turn early on in the journey. As was typical of the Emirates, one small mistake and you were done for hours. She had been looking forward to a social weekend, not one spent dealing with his incompetence. Since relocating to Dubai, she had given up her wor, and now her days consisted of coffee meet-ups with friends of necessity and driving around checking out possible real estate investments. Earlier in the day she had just sold a property for a million - sight unseen. Using the money and the addition of two more loans, she had bought another, larger plot sand for 1.7 million.
She looked down and flipped through her purse. Acrylic pieces suffocated her nail beds, but she loved the feeling of moving her hands about when they were freshly done. Manicures were delightfully cheap compared to back home in Essex. Yesterday, she had decided on a French manicure, the faded pink with the white stripe. The French manicure, one of the few feminine adornments that managed to look simultaneously pornographic and type-A middle class.
As they moved along the single lane highway, a young man with strange posture stood at the side waving and beckoning them over. Michael, always keen to engage with strangers, pulled the car over. Justine decided to pick her battles and not argue this time. Despite the increase in wealth, or perhaps as a result of it, their marriage had begun to show cracks since their relocation.
"Carpets, carpets, special price for you."
"Let's have a look." Michael began to get out of the car.
Justine played with her phone for a few minutes before reluctantly emerging. Michael was already negotiating for some rag of a carpet. A dry-cleaned version could be bought in one of the malls. Sure, it might be 20 times the price here, but that was the price Justine felt you paid for not standing in 45 degree heat along the side of a decrepit highway.
The man with missing teeth approached her. When he opened his mouth to smile, she wanted to look away. When he started discussing his family in Afghanistan, she wanted to flee. Though the entire war was not something within her control - her nationality, her wealth, her whiteness, they made her feel she was a conspirator, the wicked other. She turned her wallet over to Michael, "Buy two carpets. I'll wait in the car."
As she waited in the car, she watched the man and his assistant wrapping the carpets. Their movements were painfully slow and laboured. How did she end up in this corner of this Earth? She needed to get away from the shop, from the man with no teeth and his blubbering assistant. The voice from her childhood religious studies emerged, "The last shall come first, the last shall come first."
After their weekend away, the return back to city life resumed its frantic pace. It was back to restaurants, where being seen was more important than the food on the table. Back to the self-importance of being featured in a local tabloid. It was finally being able to show up to a polo event without having blue blood. It was back to salon appointments, where it was better to have your name known than to know the name of the technician.
The carpets remained bundled up in a corner of their villa's basement.
The property money kept coming in. Justine wanted to hold onto one plot a little while longer; it had gone up to 2.3 million. Every week, the value was going up. Michael wanted to sell and pay off the astronomical loan they had taken, but Justine pushed him to wait just a bit longer. It just kept going up, and there was no sign of a slow down. The city was caught up in rapture of new development announcements. It was the opposite of home; new money was the best money to be had.
Let's just sell and leave. That was Michael's constant mantra. He wanted to go back. Back to his local pub and pathetic football club. Justine had no intention of doing so. Returning to grey skies and ordinary citizenship seemed a cruel punishment. If her husband wanted to go back, it was fine; the plot had gone up to 2.6 million. Another few weeks then she would put it on the market. She wanted just enough so that they could avoid what she felt was the punishment of ordinary existence.
At the border, the days managed to continually produced the image of a black and white silent film. The wind blew dust as a wild camel ate from the trash receptacle. Movements appeared static as the sun beat through the silt-ridden atmosphere. The air heavy enough to feel like a foreign planet. The young Yemeni assistant beating the soil out of the carpets. The man in the garden shop watering the plants with murky water. The carpet owner barefoot and sitting cross-legged. All sentenced to wait for a generous or gullible passer-by, but one sale would be a fine day's work.
Months went by - the property went down a bit, but not enough to set off an alarm. Justine felt if she just rode out the dip, the price would go up. Isn't that how it worked? Prices always come back stronger after a little drop. Then they dropped again. Michael still tried to convince her to sell, but she wanted to wait it out. There was oil money in this country; the market couldn't crash. She was always told property was the safest investment you could make.
Until it wasn't.
The plot of land continued to drop first to a million then it halved. At the point when Justine finally caved, they were told it wasn't worth the sand on the ground. They not only wouldn't recover the money, they were dangerously in debt from the mortgage loans. Michael didn't need to plead another word; it was time to go. Packing up as much as they could, as quickly as possibly, Justine spied the two never opened carpets in the basement. They could barely afford to ship them home now. She rolled open one carpet and for the first time studied its pattern. The centre pattern was a tree with fruit, a snake coiled at its roots.
Ÿ Maryjane Nolan is the second place winner of the 2012 Short Story Competition organised by The National and the Abu Dhabi Book Fair