Isra rolled up her prayer mat and slid it back under the bed. Luckily, hers was the bottom bunk which gave her some extra storage space beneath. Anyway, she’d never felt very comfortable sleeping up above, always worried she’d roll over in her sleep and tumble onto the floor. The beds and a chest of drawers were all there was space for in the room. A curtained window and a full-length mirror, foggy with age, filled the limited wall space. She tried to quietly pull open the top drawer but the cheap plywood parts resisted and screeched. In the top bunk, Mona groaned and rolled over to face the wall, pulling the blanket up over her head. Isra removed some underwear from the drawer, tucked them into the pocket in her pyjama jacket and went out into the hall, closing the bedroom door quietly behind her.
Across the narrow passageway, the bathroom door was closed and she could hear the running water of the shower. Instead, she went to the end of the hall and into the little galley kitchen. The single small work-surface was cluttered with mugs containing various volumes of coffee dregs and a soaking cooking pot full of murky water was all it took to fill the sink. She stretched up and took down an aluminium espresso maker from the wooden shelf above. For once it was actually clean. She unscrewed it, manoeuvred the bottom section of it under the tap and carefully poured in water. She took a packet of ground coffee from the small pantry, which contained mainly bags of rice and dried pasta, and filled the basket in the coffee maker to the top. Screwing the pieces back together, she turned on one of the two hob burners and balanced the moka pot on the glowing element. While she waited for the coffee to brew, she crouched down and managed to find one small, clean cup at the back of the cupboard cluttered with old plastic takeaway boxes. She stood up again and for a moment surveyed the view from the window above the stove.
Three twelve-storey concrete apartment blocks mirrored her own, forming the sides of a square. The windows were a patchwork of coloured curtains and many of the small balconies were adorned with blankets and towels, hung out to dry or to air. Some residents had planted flower boxes or small herb gardens. On other balconies, dogs lay stretched in the morning sun or lapped water from shiny metal bowls. Down below, the solid concrete walls at ground level, broken only by the wire-meshed security doors of each block, had been brightened with the colourful flourish, sweep and swirl of graffiti. The space nestled amongst the buildings was a dusty square that had once had a patch of grass. A rusty swing squeaked as a teenaged boy smoking a cigarette lazily pushed himself with a foot that never left the ground. Next to him another boy lay smoking at the bottom of a chute whose paint had long since peeled off and had corroded into holes and ragged edges.
The whistling coffee pot stole back Isra’s attention and she turned off the hob and poured the thick, black liquid into the little cup, warming her hands on the sides. As she was about to take a first tentative sip, she heard the snap of the lock on the bathroom door and she dashed back into the hall, taking her cup with her, being careful not to spill any. She saw the figure of one of her flatmates, a towel wrapped around his waist, disappearing into another of the rooms off the hall. As well as the kitchen, the bathroom and her room, there were three more doors off the passageway. At the far end was the entrance door, with its Yale lock, two mortices, security chain and peephole. The intercom beside it hadn’t worked in years. To the left, just closing behind her showered flatmate, was the door to another bedroom similar to hers. The door to the right led to what was, technically, the living-room. It did have a sofa and a television, but two more people slept in there too. With six people sharing one bathroom, you couldn’t afford to miss your opportunity.
She closed and locked the door and placed her cup next to the washbasin, amidst the curled-bristled toothbrushes, squeezed toothpaste tubes and jars, bottles and pots of creams, lotions and gels. The rattling extractor fan was having little effect in the small, windowless space and steam hung over everything, the mirror opaque. She took off her pyjamas and hung them on a hook on the back of the door. The floor and the bathmat were already sopping wet. She stepped into the bathtub and pulled closed the pink-edged shower curtain. The water pressure was strong but she soon realised that most of hot water had already been used, so she quickly washed under a tepid stream.
When she was finished, she stepped out of the tub, wrapped herself in a towel and drank the strong, sharp coffee in a single gulp. She wiped a peephole in the mirror, brushed her teeth, put on a little make-up and brushed back her hair, tying it up with a band. In the corner of the bathroom was a washer/drier and, in the space above, a clothes rail. She removed the black skirt and white blouse from the hanger where she’d left them yesterday after removing them from the drier, using the steam to cut out the task of ironing. As she dressed, she thought about her plans for the evening and a thrill of excitement passed over her.