He could hear the laboured breathing, punctuated by the occasional deep sigh, coming from the other side of the door. Not long now, he thought to himself.
Not long before his father asked his mother to call him. She had specifically requested that he didn’t leave the house until the next day, just in case. He knew the legacy that his father wanted to bequeath him. The story of the family heirloom was well worn.
Years before, Ibrahim Sayyid, his grandfather, took to the streets with the rest of the Arab people in El Quds, and protested against the move. They wanted to keep their land, they said. It had been theirs for generations. They were not going to give it up. At least not without a fight.
Zahra, his grandmother, hurriedly packed the last boxes while Ibrahim loaded them onto the truck he had hired that morning. It was the twelfth of October. Ten thirty in the morning. Zahra remembered because she dropped the porcelain plate she had received from her sister as a wedding present so many years before. She fell to her knees to pick up the pieces and pricked her finger. Ibrahim helped her onto the front seat of the truck.
“There’s no time for that now. We’ll come back.”
He walked up to the house (he still hadn’t finished paying off the mortgage) and pulled out a grey, steel key, placed it in the key hole and deliberately locked the door. As the truck roared away and he gave his house one final look, he had to turn away from his wife to hide the tears.
Several years, the story of the key started as a bedtime story when he was a child.. Then it became a romantic tale of lost lives and times past when he got older. And as he crossed the threshold of adulthood, it became the incarnation of a determined family mission, the representation of a vendetta that would never die until they got back that which was lost: their house, their land and their dignity.
The house at number 19C Madras street no longer existed. The street no longer existed, at least not by that name. Everything had been razed to the ground on that twelfth of October at midday.
Only a few odds and ends, antiques and memories remained. And the key. The occupants of Number 21 across the road had also kept their key. Ibrahim’s brother Ali had kept his key as well. Hassan the butcher also kept his key. In fact, in their little reserve on the West Bank, various keys of different designs and sizes graced mantelpieces, adorned breasts or hid snugly in little velvet boxes. Ibrahim, Ali, Hassan and the others had all since died. But their keys, their dying wishes lived on.
Two years before he had celebrated his sixteenth birthday. His father had called him aside and told him that now he was a man. Now he should be ready to give his life for the cause. The key on the mantelpiece was representative of that cause. He had gotten it from his father Ibrahim when he died, and Ahmad would get it from him when he died.
So he waited.
“The struggle must continue until we are free. Understand?”
He knew his people had been treated shamefully in the past. He knew that many had died for their land and dignity. He saw his mother’s eyes every time the children or her husband went out and the sigh of relief when they returned safe and sound. He knew what had to be done. He would do his part.
“Yes. I understand”.
A few months ago he flipped on the television to catch the news. He thought he was watching an action film because he saw two planes crash into two buildings almost simultaneously. The news anchors’ face wiped any traces of incredulity he had left in his mind.
“Oh my God”.
That night there was a festival in the streets. Eating, singing, guns being fired long into the night.
He didn’t join in the celebrating.
He sat there in the living room, in the same seat that he had sat on on that day, waiting for his mother to call him.
When he entered his father’s bedroom, the ceremony was short. There wasn’t much time. He accepted his legacy, his burden, without murmur, without question.
After the funeral, he walked home quickly. He went to the mantelpiece and opened it slowly. It was the first time he had ever touched the key. He was surprised how light it was. He always thought that it would be heavier.
It bounced up and down in his pocket as he walked briskly to the bridge that crossed over the river. He could smell the sea in the distance, and could just make it out beyond the midday haze. He had never been there. The western bank was within the restricted zone.
He watched the key fall into the water below. He watched it fall further and further into the murky waters until he couldn’t see it any more.
As he walked home he noticed that the sea smell was stronger now. Maybe one day he would be able to go there, when things got better.