It’s difficult to explain why you wake up at 3:35 in the morning with no apparent cause. Just as you are about to lift the lid off the saucepan in your dreams, you wake up suddenly, as if sensing the weight of someone’s gaze on you, and find yourself wrapped up beneath a blanket. You want to go back there. You squeeze your eyelids shut and try to stay in touch with the last few moments of that dream, but it’s like tying off a bungee rope just at the moment when it snaps out of your grasp. You backtrack, as if retracing your steps, and try to return to the exact moment in your dream when you had begun lifting the lid off the saucepan. But it’s futile. The prospect of drifting off again, and leaving this reality behind, seems impossible to you now, lying motionless under your blanket. The wall between sleep and consciousness is too tall to climb by simply imagining a flock of migratory birds flying in a V formation or a beach where sunlight glimmers on the ocean waves.

You roll over onto your side and stare into the distance through half-closed eyes. A mild shudder runs through your body and across your blanket like a wave breaking over rocks at the edge of a lake. Through the crack in your bedroom door, you see a man perched on the end of the three-seater sofa in the living room. The figure looks too real in the light being cast from the kitchen to be an illusion or a dream. You always leave the kitchen light on overnight ‘so that burglars can see where they’re going when they break in,’ as your father used to say. In those days, he would leave a light on in the other room as well, whenever you all went out, and then he would tell you… Stop, now is not the time for a trip down memory lane. Right now you are lying in bed; your wife is lying beside you and is more vulnerable than you; she is more vulnerable than you because she is in a deeper state of sleep than you; she is in deeper state of sleep while you are in a higher state of agitation because you are awake and you are the one facing the stranger slouching on the end of the sofa.

The stranger is dressed in either a white or cream-coloured suit – it’s impossible to say for sure – and a tie. In other words, formal clothing. He looks at ease, leaning back on the sofa with one arm placed on the armrest and the other wrapped around the back, as if waiting for the world’s most stereotypical woman to emerge from the bedroom all made up and dressed in a party outfit, from where she’d glide down the stairs, accompanied by the distinct patter of her shoes, and climb into the car, gathering her skirt as she did so to stop it getting caught in the door.

Pomposity. How has such a word found its way into your head at 3:36 in the morning? Who knows. It is, however, the most accurate way of describing the man’s posture. With his legs crossed and that heavy air of pomposity, he looks like a boy thinking about whipping the servants on his father’s estate.

You close your eyes for a moment and count to three. When you open them slowly there is no sign of the stranger on the end of the sofa. You breathe a sigh of relief; the hallucinations seem to have left you in peace.”

Milad Tower and residential buildings in Shahrak-e Gharb, Tehran. Mehrad Watson/Wikimedia Commons

You don’t want to think about pomposity – you find it demoralising. You close your eyes for a moment and count to three. When you open them slowly there is no sign of the stranger on the end of the sofa. You breathe a sigh of relief; the hallucinations seem to have left you in peace. But just as you roll onto your other side, you hear a familiar, tacky sound. Someone has opened the fridge door. You can picture the stranger standing there in front of the fridge with his smug sense of entitlement, rummaging through the leftovers one by one as you do most nights. You’re aghast at the thought of a stranger helping himself to your fridge; as far as you are concerned, it is the third-most inappropriate place in the home for a stranger to snoop around in. You remember the bowl of soup from two nights ago. It was not in the fridge last night. Your wife can’t have thrown it away – she knows how much you love cold soup… Forget about food! Get up before the stranger comes back. You roll over to face the door but see that he has returned to his spot on the sofa. He is holding a glass of water to his mouth and his Adam’s apple hops up and down with each gulp. You remember all of the half-drunk glasses of water in the fridge from over the ten years that you have lived together. Suddenly, you feel like throwing up.

You hold your breath and swallow the liquid that has risen to the top of your throat. You try to remain still under the blanket, a blanket that couldn’t shield you from danger in any case, and follow the stranger’s movements through the gap between your eyelids. He crosses his legs and, in the light being cast across them, the end of his sock looks like the peak of a mountain rising from the shadows in the dying light of the sun. ‘Those socks look brand-new!’ you say to yourself. It seems pointless to make such a remark while you lie there petrified, as still as an animal gutted and stuffed with straw. Perhaps making a note of his new socks is just your way of trying to belittle the man’s stylish outfit. The remark may have been meaningless, but at least it has brought you back to the reality of socks, napkins, bedding, and creaky wardrobe doors. You decide that you must do something. You must get up and out of bed as quickly as possible.

Hidden beneath your blanket, you calmly pull yourself towards the edge of the mattress where anyone who isn’t used to sleeping on a raised bed could easily fall off. You lower yourself to the ground with extra care – you don’t want to catch the eye of the stranger or wake your wife, who would surely scream at the sight of the man sat on the sofa and staring so dispassionately into the bedroom.

The situation would not be as terrifying if the stranger had been dressed in dark, tight-fitting clothing and a balaclava, holding a torch in one hand, and bending over in the hall as he filled his rucksack. But instead, he looks unconcerned and stylish in the corner of the living room. The thought of him makes you curl up like a cat beside the bed, then glide like a ghost to a dark corner of the room to take refuge between the cupboard and the wall. The darkness is thick here – an ideal spot for someone to cower within the confines of their own home. From here, you can keep an eye on your wife as she sleeps and breathes peacefully beneath the blanket and also on the well-dressed stranger in the distance.

But how long can you keep watching the two of them? Until morning? Until you start to hear the hustle and bustle of people passing by, picking up their morning bread? Then what? Is your only hope that the stranger is afraid of daylight? The confident and self-assured expression on the man’s face does not suggest that he would suddenly howl in fear at the sight of the sun. The advent of daylight would surely be more embarrassing for you, wedged between the cupboard and the wall in your vest and pyjama bottoms. For a split-second you wonder to yourself: if someone were to walk through the door and see you now in this position, who would they actually identify as the burglar, you or the stranger? Which one seems to be invading the other’s privacy?

You take a deep breath and try to think what the most dangerous object in the bedroom could be – the most dangerous object that you could quickly grab and use to defend this most private space in the house to the last drop of blood. But the bedroom is, unfortunately, quite different to a store room or cupboard under the stairs where you might find a skewer or a pole or a rusty old pipe. This room is seemingly quite safe.

Showing the first signs of guilt can only mean that you are guilty; they’ll only have to shine a light in your face twice. Your imagination will run away with you and you’ll squeal.”

You are beyond the reach of a telephone or any other means of communication. Mobile phones emit radiation so you keep them as far away from you as possible during the night, like keeping a lover at arm’s length to avoid getting hurt, by leaving them on the kitchen counter. Your hand inches towards the cupboard door. Surely, you’re not thinking about opening the cupboard, slipping quietly inside, curling up into the foetal position, and just forgetting about it all amid the stench of old, musty clothes where not even a hint of mothball odour can be detected? You pull your hand back. You’ve never heard of a man trying to hide in a cupboard in his own home; the man of the house is supposed to be the one who checks the cupboard. Perhaps you can make your way to the terrace by crawling along the floor like a cat. From there you can slither outside, jump onto the ledge, and drop into the alley below like a thief returning home after completing his work to sleep peacefully until noon. You quickly brush the thought away; nothing could persuade you to sneak out of your own home like a thief and leave your wife alone with the stranger. One thought in particular is driving you crazy: standing in the alley in just your vest and pyjama bottoms and seeing your bedroom light suddenly turn on. The sight of your bedroom window lighting up would make your blood boil. Waiting is no longer an option. You want to scream and charge at the stranger, throw yourself on top of him, and wrap your hands around his neck, if you can.

At that exact moment, you see your wife begin to stir. It seems that she too has felt the weight of someone’s gaze upon her and her thin layer of sleep has been shattered. She leans on her elbow and pulls herself up, facing the man on the sofa. The light must be catching her eyes. The man on the sofa notices your wife and, without any change in his laid-back demeanour, he lifts his hand from the armrest and waves at her. After some hesitation, your wife waves back at him as if trying to exchange silent pleasantries. Her head then falls back on the pillow, just like before.

View over Tehran from Milad Tower. Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons

You watch the scene unfold in bewilderment from your dark corner and your voice gets lost in the back of your throat as the well-dressed man gets up and starts to walk towards the room and you are suddenly faced with a much more painful ending to your night than just a bout of sleeplessness at 3:36 in the morning.

Or maybe not. He turns towards the bathroom. What are you going to do now? Should you go and shake the woman until she wakes up? What if she screams when she sees you? Bear in mind that a vest and pyjama bottoms don’t automatically make you the homeowner. That won’t prove anything to the police and the neighbours. Look at your hands; they are trembling. And your teeth are chattering. Haven’t you ever gone through a checkpoint or a police cordon? They don’t search everyone. You’re showing the first tell-tale signs of guilt. Showing the first signs of guilt can only mean that you are guilty; they’ll only have to shine a light in your face twice. Your imagination will run away with you and you’ll squeal. Then you’ll start contradicting yourself before they even get a chance to grill you.

What colour are your wife’s eyes? What does she think about on Saturday afternoons? How many people does she talk to throughout the day? How often does she sigh when she goes on one of her walks? Does she even go on walks?”

Could you have possibly walked into the wrong house last night? You take a look at your surroundings. I can see that you’re having doubts. When was that picture frame hung up on the wall? Never mind that – just take a look at the cupboard beside you; does that even seem familiar to you? You’ve had a fear of cupboards ever since you were a child. You always believed that someone, or some monster, was lurking in the cool space behind the hanging clothes and that it would leap out as soon as you opened the door. You also used to be scared of windows. But look around at the windows in your bedroom; they stretch all the way to the ceiling. You strain your eyes looking for traces of your own existence in the darkness. Your gaze then falls on the shape under the blanket. Wait, how does your wife’s perfume smell? Sweet? Fresh? You’ve always believed that men are oblivious to the scent of their wives’ perfume, like the smell of a tobacco pipe when you are in the middle of smoking it. What colour are your wife’s eyes? What does she think about on Saturday afternoons? How many people does she talk to throughout the day? How often does she sigh when she goes on one of her walks? Does she even go on walks? How many times has she waved at you through the darkness of your bedroom? Damn you! You have no way of identifying your own wife. If you ever lost sight of her at the Friday market, you’d never be able to pick her out in the congested mass of antiques and other women.

He’s washing his hands. Whoever it is that’s lying beneath the blankets must have gone back to sleep. Go. Quietly open the door to the terrace. Slip through the door like a cat carrying off a piece of meat between its teeth. Leave it ajar.

The air is cool. Perhaps the early morning breeze on your face will help you remember where you made a wrong turn after taking the rubbish out last night and how you ended up here. Grab onto the ledge and sneak across. Once you reach the edge, take a quick look at the alley below and jump. After that, make your way to the end of the alley without looking back. You can take a little walk until it starts to get lighter or just find a step to sit on and close your eyes. You’ll remember where to go once it gets lighter. Or perhaps, who knows, once the sun is shining you’ll open your eyes and see that you are right where you belong.

Translated by Shahab Vaezzadeh, from The Book of Tehran, edited by Fereshteh Ahmadi (Comma Press, £9.99)


Hamed Habibi (born 1979) is a poet and writer of books for children and adults. His debut collection of short stories, Moon and Copper, received the 2004 Isfahan Literary Award. His second, Where Fixing Punctures is Final, won the 2007 Golshiri Award. His third collection, The Buddha of Gerdbad Restaurant earned him the 2011 Haft-Eqlim Award. His other works include Fish’s Eyelid (2016) and the novel At the 11th Kilometre On Old Urmia to Salmas Highway (2017).

Shahab Vaezzadeh earned a BA in Persian Studies from the University of Manchester, where he read Persian language and literature and explored themes of Westernisation in Iranian literature of the Pahlavi period. He is currently working as a freelance translator and interpreter.

The Book of Tehran, out now in paperback from Comma Press, showcases ten stories from contemporary Iranian writers that explore tensions and pressures between the public and the private. From judgemental neighbours and the expectations of religion and society to family feuds, thwarted ambitions and destructive relationships, they build up a provocative social and psychological portrait of the city.
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Fereshteh Ahmadi is an Iranian novelist, short story writer, literary critic and editor. She studied architecture at The University of Tehran before pursuing a career as a journalist in the late 1990s as a journalist. She has won several literary prizes for her novels and short fiction. Her first novel Fairy of Forgetfulness (2007) was a finalist of the Mehregan Award and the Rouzi-Rouzegari Awards for the Bookseller’s Choice of Best Novel. Her latest book Domestic Monsters (2016) is a collection of eight stories. In 2017 she was writer-in-residence at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay.

Author portrait © Sarah Lee/The Guardian