There’s an Egyptian dessert called Oum Ali which commemorates a murder. The story goes that Shajar al-Durr, widow of a 13th century sultan, could not be ruler of Egypt unless she married. So she found herself a total pushover of a husband named Izz al-Din Aybak who she thought would make a fine puppet sultan. He was already married, but that did not stop the ambitious sultana-to-be. She simply forbade him from seeing his first wife and his son Ali.
The ruling couple did not exactly live happily ever after. The sultan missed his old family. Eventually, the sultana had the sultan murdered and announced to the world that he had very tragically and completely accidentally died while taking a bath. The sultan’s first wife was not going to stand for this. She lured the sultana to the bath house, where her servants beat her to death with their slippers. To celebrate her victory, the first wife cooked up a delicious bread pudding with coconut and almonds and served it to all her friends. And she named the dish Oum Ali after herself: Ali’s mother. What a woman.
I’ve never actually tasted this dessert, but the story stuck in my mind for three reasons. First of all, Egyptians are weird. Why would you name a dessert after a murderer? Second, this tragedy could have been avoided if they’d just let Shajar al-Durr be sultana and supreme ruler without a man. She was quite competent, apparently. Third, and perhaps most importantly, in the right hands a slipper can be a formidable weapon. I had a slipper. It was the middle of the night and someone was moving around my apartment. A burglar? A deranged mass murderer? A ghost? I needed all the weaponry I could get.
I suppose Oum Ali and her servants used a fairly hefty type of slipper, perhaps something wooden like a clog. I had one of those flimsy slippers that are complimentary on long flights. I honestly don’t know why there was a slipper in the pocket of my dressing gown. The other pocket contained a toothpick and a postcard. I thought of the bread knife in the kitchen and the hammer in the tool chest. Both were beyond my reach. My bedroom did not contain any convenient cricket bats or thick hardcover books.
My fingers tensed around the slipper in my pocket as I crept down the hallway. The light was on in the kitchen and someone was clattering around in there. Drawers. Cutlery. Plates. The tap. The fridge. A pan. The gas stove. Then a tiny crack followed by a loud sizzling sound. What kind of burglar breaks into a house to fry an egg?
I peered around the corner and saw a woman dressed in green. She had dark hair that was fighting its way out of a fancy braid. She looked fairly harmless, but I did not relinquish the grasp on the slipper. Perhaps I could slip past her to the living room, find my phone, call the police…
I must’ve made a noise because she glanced up.
“Hi,” she said, with a flicker of a smile. “I suppose you are wondering what I’m doing in your kitchen in the middle of the night.”
“Long story.” She opened a drawer and began to rummage through it. “Do you have a spatula?”
“How did you get in?”
“Your spare key. Honey, your letterbox is the first place burglars look. You really should be more careful.” She spotted the spatula in the earthenware jar by the stove and extracted it with a flourish. “You’re not hungry, are you? There was just one egg.”
I shook my head and sat down at the kitchen table while she made herself a cup of tea and some toast to go with her egg. Sunny side up. She sat down opposite me and began to wolf down her food. I kept my hand in my pocket. The slipper felt oddly comforting.
“So, first things first,” she said, between bites. “I’m Gloria.”
I said nothing.
“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”
“I’m waiting to hear what you’re doing in my apartment.” I was also pinching myself repeatedly but all that got me was a bruised forearm. This was not a dream.
The woman - Gloria - mopped up the last of the egg with a piece of toast and popped it into her mouth. “Would you believe me if I said I’m a secret agent, trying to track down a spy who could endanger my entire mission?”
“Top secret, can’t tell you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Fair enough. I’ll give you a broad outline. It involves a stolen Rembrandt painting, three cardinals and a significant quantity of enriched uranium.”
“I still don’t believe you.”
“Too far-fetched? Yes, I suppose it is.” She took a sip of her tea. “What if I said I broke in on a dare?”
“Better,” I said. “But still not believable enough. What sort of dare involves cooking?”
“I have weird friends.”
That I could believe.
Gloria took another sip of tea. “You’d like me to leave, don’t you?”
“Yes. I don’t like people breaking into my apartment.”
“Is it technically breaking in if I used a key?”
“I suppose you’re right.” She got to her feet, brushed a few crumbs of her shirt and put her plate in the sink. She also left the dirty frying pan on the stove.
“Well,” she said. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
She held out her hand. When I didn’t move, she reached forward and pulled mine out of my pocket. I was still holding the slipper, and she raised an eyebrow at the sight of it.
“You’re weird,” she said.
“Bit rich coming from you.”
“Who keeps a slipper in the pocket of their dressing gown?”
“Who breaks into a stranger’s apartment in the middle of the night to fry an egg?”
“I was hungry.”
“Then use your own kitchen!”
“Not possible, I’m afraid. My kitchen is far away. It would take me years to get back there.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
“It’s true,” she said. The smile was back on her face. The corners of her eyes crinkled. “I’m a time traveller from the distant future.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, then! I’m an alien, and my home planet is dozens of light years from here.”
“I don’t believe you. And if you don’t tell me the truth right now, I’m calling the police.”
“And tell them what? That someone broke in and stole your last egg? I’ll be long gone before they get here. You can’t stop me.”
I held up my slipper. “I’ll use this.”
“To do what?”
I whacked her around the head with it. She blinked. I whacked her again. The slipper was drooping at a sad angle. I would be writing the Egyptian people a sternly worded letter concerning the effectiveness of slippers in hand-to-hand combat.
“Stop it,” Gloria said, after I’d whacked her a third time.
“Not until you tell me why you are here!” My brain was fizzing and my kitchen looked oddly shiny and blurred around the edges, the way everything looks when you are so tired you don’t realise you are tired anymore. It was nearly three in the morning by now.
“All right, then,” said Gloria. “I’ll tell you. I’m the queen of the fairies, and I appear in the human world once a year. If I am warmly received, I bless the world. If I am not, I curse it.”
“Curse all you want.” I raised the slipper.
She did swear then, a colourful string of invectives that would have made a sailor blush.
“Actually, I’m a scientist,” she said. A smile flickered across her face again. “I’m studying how people respond to strange situations.”
“I wonder what your ethics committee thinks of that.”
Perhaps I could push her out of my apartment. I stepped forward, and she stepped back, eyeing the slipper in my hand. Step by step, I nudged her towards the front door.
“I’m a member of the neighbourhood watch,” she said, as she took a step backwards into the hallway. “I regularly check if people hide their spare keys in stupid places, and then confront them like this.”
Gloria had her back to my front door now.
“You win,” she said. She took something out of her pocket and handed it to me. It was my spare key.
I opened the door. A blast of cold air made me shiver. “Why are you really here?”
“I’ve given you at least half a dozen reasons.”
“Are you saying one of them is the truth?”
“No,” she said. “All of them are.”
And she stepped out into the night and was gone.
I locked and bolted the door and placed a chair under the handle for good measure.
I can’t remember falling asleep but I must have done. I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache, still clutching the slipper. When I padded down the hallway, the first thing I saw was a chair propped against my front door. There was a dirty frying pan on the stove and a plate in the sink. I opened my fridge and saw I had one egg. There was a tiny note beside it.
I am many things, the note said. But not a thief.