The taxi driver said something about accepting cash but I just gave him half an hour of my time and stepped out onto the street. The foetid stench of the third world stung my nostrils as the dense crowd immediately swallowed me. I was glad that within the hour I would be gone.
The crowd was all heading one direction and I let it carry me along unable to see anything beyond the sea of white robes that enveloped me. Everyone seemed to have one destination in mind so there was no use fighting my way free until we were closer.
After only a short walk the crowd dispersed into the open and it was like we had stepped into another world. The bustle and ruin of the ancient city that struggled with the decision of keeping its heritage or moving into the future disappeared behind me. Into the distance lay the open desert, punctuated by three of the most perplexing creations in mankind’s history. It was hard to believe that the two clashing worlds had come from the same storied past. The everlasting pyramids and the crumbling Cairo.
I turned away from the pyramids and glanced down at my watch. Time was of the essence. Making my way along the street between city and sand I scanned the outdoor seating at the cafes and restaurants. Everyone had come to see the sun descend behind the pyramids, so there wasn’t a free seat to be found. I gained speed the further I had to walk, getting desperate to find a place before I wasted too much of my time. I had wanted so desperately to spend my final hour actually enjoying myself, but it was starting to seem unlikely.
“Sir, table for you,” a heavily accented voice said beside me and I almost leapt out of my skin.
I was too caught up in my own thoughts to see the waiter standing outside of his cafe.
“Yes, if you have any,” I said as I scanned behind him and saw that it was so busy there were people leaning against the walls to drink their tea.
“Please, yes, follow me. Best view of the Great Giza this way.” He placed a hand on my back and led me from behind, pushing me into the cafe and expertly moving us around the throng of customers and out the back door. He gestured to a rickety metal ladder in the small courtyard overflowing with trash. “Climb Sir, please. I will bring you tea.”
I looked up the ladder as I grabbed the side rail and stepped hesitantly onto the bottom rung, testing its strength before I left the ground. It strained and the bolts screeched with complaint but the ladder somehow remained mounted to the wall. I made my way up one rung at a time and then as soon as I could reach the roof I grabbed the edge and pulled myself up. I slithered along on my stomach, covering my clothes in a layer of sand. I didn’t care enough to wipe any of it away as I raised myself onto my knees and then my feet.
At the far end of the roof was a metal table and two chairs. A brunette with her long hair waving in the gentle breeze occupied one of the chairs, sitting motionless and staring out at the pyramids.
I wanted to spend my last moments alone so having somebody else taking up the only table didn’t suit my plans. I walked slowly towards her making sure my footsteps made enough noise to let her know that someone was approaching. I had every intention of simply asking to take the chair and moving it further away to enjoy the view on my own. But when she turned and looked to see who was coming I forgot about the beauty I had come to see as the image I had envisaged was replaced with her face.
Perhaps spending the rest of my time in another person’s company wasn’t the best idea after all. Especially one so beautiful who didn’t deserve to have to deal with this.
“Hi,” she said. “You can sit down if you want.”
“I might just go actually, I don’t want to disturb you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Sit down or you’re going to miss the sunset.”
I looked past her and saw that the sun was descending faster than I had expected. Checking my watch I realised that I didn’t have time to go anywhere else. “I might just move the chair over there and leave you in peace,” I said pointing to an empty space near the side of the roof.
“For what is the point of beauty unless it is shared?”
“Is that a quote by someone?”
“It’s just something my Father used to say. But its fitting. Please join me.”
I was always too weak to say no to a beautiful woman so I did what I knew was the wrong thing and I sidled into the seat beside her.
We both fell silent as we stared out at what really might have been the best view of the pyramids like the waiter had said. He turned up a minute later with a tray of tea for one, that he had somehow carried up the ladder without spilling a drop, and placed it on the table between us before disappearing.
I didn’t want the tea but I offered it to my companion and she allowed me to pour her a cup. When she tried to thank me she realised we hadn’t told each other our names. When she asked for mine I decided for once that it didn’t matter if she knew who I really was so I told her my real name. The name I hadn’t used in years. George. Her name was Persephone; of course. That was the name of the only angel I knew.
She tried to keep the conversation alive but all I really wanted to do was enjoy the view so I responded politely but didn’t try too hard to continue the small talk.
Eventually the sun dipped behind the tip of the Pyramid of Giza and we both gasped. Hues of red and orange bathed the sky in a warm radiance and I was entranced by the shifting colours of the sky as the sun set below the horizon. Once the sun was completely hidden behind the pyramid I risked a glance down at my watch and saw that there were only a few minutes left before time ran out.
“I’m sorry,” I said without turning to face Persephone. “I wanted to be alone for this but you insisted I sit with you.”
She didn’t respond. In fact she didn’t make a sound at all.
I glanced over and noticed that something was wrong. Her entire body was slumped like the muscle control that keeps our bodies upright and rigid had left her. Her eyes were staring out at the pyramids and a single tear was glistening on her right cheek in the dying sunlight.
I jumped out of my chair and throwing the table out of the way knelt down in front of her and grabbed both of her wrists. When I couldn’t find a pulse I slowly turned her right arm over and lifted myself up so that I could read the watch face. It wasn’t what I had expected it to look like when someone’s time ran out. There were no flashing neon lights or alarms. The dim screen simply displayed all zeroes. I dropped her hand and fell onto my backside, leaning forward slightly so that I didn’t roll backwards off of the rooftop.
I had never believed in coincidence yet somehow the two of us had gone to the exact same spot with the exact same idea in mind. I felt exactly what she could have been feeling if I had had a few minutes less time. It wasn’t a good feeling to have somebody else run out of time right next to me and I couldn’t believe I was actually going to put her through it just because she was beautiful and had asked me to stay. I suddenly realised she had probably asked me to do so because she didn’t want to be alone when it all ended. It was probably why I had ended up staying too.
I dragged my eyes away and looked down at my watch for what I expected would be the final time. Moments before it had said three minutes but suddenly there were over sixty years on my clock. I looked back up at Persephone. Her lifeless face seemed to be smiling at me and I knew that she had done this.
“What have you done?” I yelled, scrambling to my feet. “Why would you do this to me without even saying anything?”
I had done this to myself by giving her my real name. If only I had remained anonymous for just a little bit longer I could be the one leaving this world behind.
Near darkness suddenly enveloped me like a light had been switched off overhead and only the streetlights nearby remained alight. I turned and saw that the sun had disappeared below the horizon.
“Damn you Persephone,” I said and felt my way back to my chair and slumped into it. “You took away my happy ending.”
I couldn’t find the will to transfer all of my time away again. It didn’t feel right to throw away somebody else’s time even though I had done exactly that with my own time. I don’t know what she was thinking giving her time to me or what she expected me to do with it. All I knew was that her time deserved someone who felt as she had that beauty should not be observed alone. I needed to find somebody who knew what that meant and needed more time to enjoy it.
The waiter appeared on the roof with a flashlight and was surprised to see me turn around. “Oh, I not expect you still be here Sir,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Sir, I’m sorry. I saw your watch. I bring you to be alone. Until the end.”
“But I wasn’t alone,” I turned to look at where Persephone sat but the chair was empty. I leapt to my feet and looked around for her body. “There was a woman here who died minutes before I was supposed to.”
“No Sir, you were alone.”
“But… No. What?”
I looked down at my watch and pressed the button on the side to light up the watch face. I still had more than sixty years of time. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Had Persephone actually been an angel come down from Heaven to give me a second chance in my final moments. I had heard stories of that happening before. But I always believed that those people were crazy. I didn’t think I was crazy. But there was no other explanation. Nobody alive knew who I really was so they couldn’t have found me and given me any of their time. Not that close to my death. Persephone being an angel really was the only explanation. No matter how absurd that was.
I turned to face the waiter and all I could see was the bright white light shining in my face. If that wasn’t a symbol from above I didn’t know what was.
“I don’t know why you want me to live, but I promise I won’t waste any more of your time.”
“Ok Sir, please come down,” the waiter replied.
I hadn’t been speaking to him.