Kaylee grasped her mother’s hand as they made their way up the icy stone walkway. Snow covered the edge of the path where flowers usually blossomed during the spring. She watched her step so as not to fall and ruin her new pink puffy coat. It was her first Christmas present of the year from her parents. Even though Christmas Eve wasn’t until tomorrow night, the frigid weather allowed for Kaylee to receive her coat a few days early.
While one gloved hand clung desperately to her mother, the other held just as tightly onto Bunny. Bunny went everywhere with Kaylee since she was two. The stuffed rabbit’s ears were tattered from months of teething, and his yellow coloring faded from hundreds of journeys through the washing machine. Kaylee held him by the ears and raised her arm just high enough to keep his fluffy bottom from dragging on the cold, wet ground.
After making her way up the front steps, Kaylee turned around to watch her father carry their bags. Her Hello Kitty duffle bag stood out against her parents’ gray luggage. She wondered why grownups chose such boring colors.
Kaylee spun around at the sound of the front door opening. Her grandmother’s face had her usual smile stretching from ear to ear. Kaylee loved her grandmother’s smile. It was always sincere and her teeth were the brightest shade of white.
“Hi, dearies,” she exclaimed as she stepped aside to let her children enter the warm house. The smell of apple pie and sweet potatoes filled Kaylee’s nostrils the instant she crossed the threshold. Holiday spirit was palpable in her grandparents’ house.
As her grandmother leaned down to take off her coat, Kaylee’s grip on Bunny remained firm.
“What a beautiful coat, Kaylee,” Grandma said. “Where did you get it?”
“Mommy and Daddy gave it to me for Christmas,” she replied softly. The sounds of chatter coming from the other room kept Kaylee glued to her spot in the foyer. It usually took her a while to ease out of her shyness.
“A new coat for Christmas!” Kaylee jumped at the bellowing voice of her grandfather. “What a lucky girl, getting her presents early.” He scooped her up in a big bear hug and planted a kiss on her that smushed her cheeks together. “Want to go say hi to everyone?”
Before she could say no, she was being carried into the next room. The sight of so many people caused Kaylee to bury her face in her grandfather’s sweater.
“Aw, look who’s being shy,” sang her aunt’s familiar birdlike voice. Kaylee felt long, fake nails tickle her neck. She shrugged her shoulders to protect her neck from the invading fingers. “I have something you, sweetie.” Kaylee peeked out from her grandfather’s shoulder and saw a Hershey Kiss in her aunt’s outstretched hand. She reached out her tiny hand to grab the candy, but before she could claim it, her aunt’s fingers closed around it. “First and hug, then you get the kiss.”
Kaylee hesitated, but the thought of chocolate helped her conquer her bashfulness. She held out her arms, Bunny still dangling from her right hand, and wrapped them around her aunt’s neck. She was embraced in another bear hug and received a glossy kiss on her cheek before being set down. As soon as she had her chocolate, Kaylee turned and ventured further into the crowded room. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and her answers to everyone’s questions were short.
“How are you?” “Good.”
“Who’s in your hand?” “Bunny.”
“How old are you?” “Five.”
“Are you excited for Santa?” “Yes.”
Kaylee finally found her way to the other side of the room. She sat in her little seat positioned next to the Christmas tree. From here she could observe her bustling relatives catching up after being separated for months by hundreds of miles. Kaylee enjoyed watching people and listening in on their conversations. Especially when she was the topic of the conversations. People often made comments about her thinking she couldn’t hear them.
“She’s gotten so big!”
“She has her father’s nose.”
“And her mother’s brown hair.”
“But where did the curls come from?”
“She’s too skinny.”
As Kaylee sat listening to the grownups around her, a loud greeting was heard in the foyer. She wondered who had arrived that warranted such an uproarious welcome. Her mother walked into the room and announced that Granddad had arrived.
Kaylee stiffened in her seat. She knew that her mother’s grandfather was her Great Grandfather Henry. Before anyone noticed her moving, Kaylee escaped out of the other door in the room and into the kitchen, dragging Bunny on the floor behind her. Her heart pounded with fear when she though of Great Grandpa Henry. His frail ninety-five year old frame crept slowly forward with the support of his cane as his third leg. His tired face seemed to have permanently wrinkled up into a frown. His eyes were sunken in and gloomy. Kaylee was sure she would turn to stone whenever she looked into the two pits of darkness on his face.
When dinnertime came around, Kaylee was relieved to be placed between her parents. Great Grandpa Henry, as the oldest member of the family, was perched at the head of the long table. His food was served to him while everyone else served themselves. He barely spoke—just gave slight nods when her mother or aunt pointed to the various serving plates. His movements were slow and stiff. It often pained Kaylee to watch him exert any kind of energy.
When he chewed his food, his jaw moved just as slowly as the rest of his body. His teeth always looked like they were going to fall out. Everything about him frightened Kaylee. While everyone else treated him with love and respect, Kaylee did her best to hide from him. She saw her great grandfather as a scary monster, slinking slowly through the hallways, making creepy wheezing sounds when he breathed, walking hunched over like he was preparing to attack any little creature that got in his way. To Kaylee, there was nothing great or grand or fatherly about Henry.
By nine o’clock, Kaylee had made it through the evening of staring and coddling from her aunts and uncles and was tucked into bed. Her father gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Can you tell me a story?” asked Kaylee as her father stood up.
“Not tonight, sweetie. I’m gonna go talk with people downstairs. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen everyone.”
“Please,” implored Kaylee with a pleading look in her eyes. Kaylee always took advantage of her father’s weakness for her big brown eyes.
“Sorry, but not tonight. I’ll tell you two tomorrow night. How does that sound?”
Kaylee hesitated before accepting the offer. Her father left her alone in the room, leaving the door slightly ajar. She closed her eyes after making sure Bunny was securely at her side.
She was just about the drift off to sleep when she hear footsteps in the hallway. Her excitement grew as she expected her father to come back and tell her a story after all. But just as quickly as her excitement grew, it dissipated when she realized the footsteps didn’t belong to her father. They sounded much too slow, and if she wasn’t mistaken, the person had three feet instead of two.
Before she could figure out who was coming, a shadow filled the crack in the door. Kaylee sat up and clutched Bunny to her chest. A slight creek sounded as the door slowly opened. As the crack in the door widened, so did Kaylee’s eyes. Her pulse quickened and her skin went cold as Great Grandpa Henry took shape in the door frame.
When the door was completely open, Henry slowly made his way into the room. Time seemed to slow down as he made his way towards her bed. Kaylee sat perfectly still, too afraid to move. Bunny was locked in a death grip between Kaylee’s arms, chest and chin. After seconds that felt like hours, Henry hovered over the bed leaning heavily on his cane. His sunken eyes stared down at her like two pieces of coal. And then, just when she thought he couldn’t inch any closer, his free hand reached out to her, wrinkled and trembling.
Kaylee ducked her head as far as she could, but the hand continued to creep towards her. She shuddered when she felt Henry’s cool skin brush past her cheek and reach behind her ear. Kaylee’s mouth opened slightly and a whimpering sound escaped her lips. The whimper was about to turn into a scream when the hand returned from behind her ear. Kaylee’s anxiety turned to amazement when Great Grandpa Henry held a shiny quarter in front of her eyes. Her hand shot up to her ear and her mouth dropped open.
Henry smiled. “I saw something shiny behind your ear during dinner.” He held the quarter out to her. After a slight hesitation, Kaylee reached out and accepted the gift. “Do you like bedtime stories?” he asked softly.
Kaylee couldn’t hide her excitement as her eyes lit up. “Yes,” she replied meekly and leaned back against her pillow.
Henry turned around and sat on the side of the bed. Kaylee bent her legs to give the elderly man more room.
“Once upon a time, in a land across the sea, there lived a young magician known far and wide. Audiences traveled hundreds of miles to see Haunting Henry perform his legendary disappearing acts. His fame allowed him to travel to many countries, including America where he eventually met his future wife.”
Kaylee listened with fascination as her great grandfather detailed his journey from being a young boy with a desire to be different and amazing to an internationally acclaimed illusionist.
By the time the story came to an end, Kaylee was sitting on the edge of her bed looking up at Great Grandpa Henry with curiosity. Henry noticed her questioning gaze and smiled.
“Is there anything you want to know?” he asked as he put his arm around her lovingly.
Kaylee stared down at her palm where the quarter still rested. “When did you learn the quarter trick?”
“When I was five years old,” he whispered.
“Like me?” Kaylee responded excitedly.
“Like you.” Henry leaned over and gave Kaylee a kiss on the cheek. Then, with the support of the nightstand and his third leg, he rose and began his slow journey out of the room. As he reached the door, Kaylee sat up quickly.
“What was the best magic you ever did?”
“My family.” His response came without hesitation. “I created my family.”
You can find more of Rebecca’s work at: http://rebeccalaskowitz.blogspot.com/
Unsuspecting beneath the silent stars
Or in fields of fragrant flowers I am led
With sudden splendid vision I behold
Her image penetrates my very soul
To a life of love and feelings deep
Beauty and pleasure found surpassing all
Romance with me
By: Donn Hoffmann
Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
Heart of Mine
When silent nights wear a star studded crown
With moonlight splashing upon the ground
Hear my voice approaching like a gentle breeze
Like the songs of birds, listen to my words
Feel my presence
I have fallen in love with you
By: Donn Hoffmann
Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
My Heart ~Yours Alone
In the midst of others
I see no one, I hear no one, only you
All but forgotten are those who came before you
Captivated each time I see you, never wanting to flee
My passion in the beauty of you alone remains
By: Donn Hoffmann Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
Into The Night
With the luster of a velvet moon
Along the summits of mountains
Heaven opens over lakes and groves
In the quiet shade of the valley below
There along the path she is found
A motion of loveliness, her heart serene
She walks with pleasure and pure delight
With a perfume laden breeze
Among the trees, where flowers grow
Amidst the songs of birds, she pauses
Her love appears, courageous in her eyes
Her heart rushing against her breast
With trembling knees, she cannot sustain
Spirited by his gaze to him she goes
Into the night all pleasure found
With him she will remain
By: Donn Hoffmann
Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
My Heart Rejoices
High above the hills and valleys
Through billowing white clouds, the landscape unfolds
More radiant than the glow of the early morning sky
Beautiful are my thoughts and desires of you
To gently caress your body
Capturing its pleasure within my hands
I cast below my hopes and dreams they not fade away
By: Donn Hoffmann
Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
O Lovely Moon
When I think of you, my crescent moon
Pursuing a path across the tranquil night sky
Painted with your lovely glow
O sweet companion and loving friend
I clasp you to my breast to the bosom of my heart
Life glides on with cheerful hopeful happiness
By: Donn Hoffmann
Originally appeared in Passages: Secrets of the Heart by Donn Anthony Hoffmann
My Love for You
Like autumn leaves turning into a hue of colors
Like the changes of seasons, you are always there
Like the light of the sun that makes bright the da y
Like the shadow of the moon as it fills the night sky
Like a flower that blossoms without the aid of seasons
You are always there
By: Donn Hoffmann
By: Mehreen Ahmed
People say that the wheel of fortune revolves in two directions. That it slips backwards and sometimes moves forwards. After about three decades, old Brown’s fate was about to change today. And it happened mysteriously enough. There was no logic as to why or how things occurred; they just did, without any rhyme or reason. Circumstance lent itself favourably, leading to his success on this fateful foggy winter of 1875.
A sound of fury distracted them; none other but the wind lashed across. The horses swerved a bit off course, but Brown’s young apprentice Peter handled it skilfully. Brown took his wallet out of his shirt pocket and looked at a picture. This was the picture of a little girl in a polka dot frock. He put his wallet away.
Peter had been here before. They were on their way to the Carpenter abode. After about an hour’s ride, they could see their house. It sat on a vast land which was now in view. Their cart drew closer to the house; the horse trotted gently down the gravel path and stopped under the porch, at a pull of Peter’s reins. With a sigh, they looked at one another. Peter and Brown disembarked.
Someone flung the front door open. Lydia and Jim Carpenter, came out and greet ed them, but not Rose. Slow trepidation pumped in as their heart-rates went up.
“Hello, how’s it going?” Jim beamed cordially.
“Good, pretty good,” Peter managed a nervous smile.
“And how about you Brown? Doing okay?”
“Yes, yes, not too bad.”
Peter could smell the aromas of butter from here. Some drifted across in the winds to tickle his nostrils amiably.
“Is Rose not here?” Brown asked.
“Of course, she is. She’s toiling away in the kitchen cooking up a storm for you two.”
“Oh, I thought, it was just a meeting, no food involved,” Peter interjected.
“Look, I don’t know. I just carried out the instructions that Jim gave me,” Lydia smiled.
“Well, typically, it would be lunch time by the time you got here. So, why not?” Jim said.
“Sure, sure, why not?” Brown mumbled.
As they all approached the door together, Peter saw Rose through the fly-screen. She was leaning over the hot stove in the sunlight filtered through the kitchen windows. Her green eyes glimmering, and partly covered with golden curls hanging over her brows, she looked up sheepishly and smiled. Peter smiled back and shrugged. Rose held a hot plate of burned drumsticks in her hand.
“Oh dear. Don’t worry, just leave them out here,” Lydia remarked.
“I’ll eat them!” Peter offered graciously.
Rose laughed at that and then turned to Brown. They walked towards the next room. Peter lingered in her presence slightly before he joined them. They sat down in a bright floral sofa. Peter looked around and thought it was quite a cheerful room with many stuffed animals displayed on the mantel shelf. However, as he observed Brown, Peter found him absorbed in thoughts. These thoughts took old Brown back to little Rosie. As a toddler, her first word for food was ‘nun’ for ‘yum’ which had emerged when Brown had given her a piece of cheese to taste. From then onwards, everything from water to pudding was ‘nun’, ‘nun’ and yet, more ‘nun’ until she learnt, ‘yum’ a few months later. Peter coined a smile around the corners of his lips. It was quite obvious that his mind wasn’t on socialising this afternoon. Sitting on the far end, he felt edgy, as he gripped the cushioned handle of the sofa unwarranted. He wanted to get to business straightaway. He asked Jim Carpenter, if he could take a walk with him on the farm. Lydia, guessed just as much and looked at Peter searchingly. Peter avoided making eye-contact. He continued to gaze at the animal posters on the walls. She sat quietly for a moment and then rose mumbling that she needed to help Rose in the kitchen. Peter nodded feeling a tensed moment.
From this angle where Peter was sitting, he could see Rose tinkering with pots and pans and burnt drumsticks. She had her back towards him. Her wiry arms moved fast and her rounded hips swung inadvertently when she shifted her posture. Peter felt like being closer to her. He felt like touching those arms. He gazed at her until she turned around with a jolt and caught him dreaming. She suppressed a smile and waited for him to come over. Rose was accustomed to men drooling over her. But Peter did just the opposite. He got up from his chair hurriedly and walked out. Rose put down the metal pot on a wooden table placed beside the stove and ran after him feeling slighted. She always had the upper hand where her men were concerned. She was the one who turned away from them, not the other way round.
Finding Peter was easy. He was sitting under a desolate apple tree. On this wintry morning, the apple tree looked as though the sunless Hades cast a colourless shadow on its skeletal branches. The ones reaching out like dendrites of the neural system. She stood calmly before him. Peter looked up.
“Why have you come again?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I’m asking you.”
“If I said, I fell in love with you the first time we met, would you believe me?”
“That would amuse me. I’m used to that but…,”
“I don’t know.”
“No. I’m not in love with you, Rose, not as much as I would like to be anyway.”
“I don’t understand. What is it then?”
“I don’t know.”
Both Rose and Peter fell quiet after that. They knew not what to do next. Peter glanced at Rose and smiled. A lock of her curls had tumbled over her forehead in the wind. Peter took a sharp breath and said,
“Gosh, Rose. You’re pretty.”
He put a hand out and tried to play with her curls on her forehead. He twirled them around his fingers. She did nothing to stop it. Rose extended her hand towards Peter; her long fingers touching the tip of his. Peter enclosed her fingers into his masculine idle palm.
“Do you ever think of getting married, Peter?”
“Hmm, interesting question.”
Peter smiled at her small inquisitive face and caressed her rosy cheeks touching it with his index finger. He put a protective arm around Rose and thought of big ocean waves lapping on the shore.
“What’re you thinking, Peter?”
“Nothing. How ‘bout you Rose? Do you think about marriage?”
“Yeah, I think about it but I’m afraid of long-term commitment?”
“That’s just how I’m.”
Peter frowned lightly. And looking away, he saw Brown and Jim walking towards them down the gravel path. They both looked anxious and agitated. Grim face, stiff lips, deep frowns. Now that they were within view, Rose and Peter both stood up and waited for them. As they came closer, Peter saw Brown looking at Rose; and extending an arm, he suddenly broke down. Hundred years of ice seemed to have melted down in a rivulet. Rose was flustered.
“Wha? What is is it?” she stammered.
Words froze. Brown couldn’t talk. Rose shied away from his open embrace; he sat down on the bench. A tired old man who lost so much and found again never to let go but, he felt it fallen was slipping in quick sand.
Jim asked Rose to come inside with him. But invited neither Brown nor Peter. Leaving them out, he took Rose by the shoulder and stalked inside. Rose’s skirt swayed swiftly on the gravel path. It didn’t occur to him that Rose was an adult now and she could choose a life as she pleased.
Indeed, the picture in old Brown’s wallet came handy; the picture of a small girl wearing a polka dot dress was the same dress, Rose also had among her possessions when the Carpenters adopted her from the orphanage. In fact that was her only belonging. This dress. Near match photographs were also there in Jim’s album that posed striking similarity to the little girl’s picture in Brown’s wallet wearing the same dress. There were no doubts left in Brown’ or Jim’s mind that this was the same girl … Rose, Brown’s little Rosie; no mistaken identity. Oh! Rosie was alive after all these years and well. Thirty years, those thirty long years, when Rose was abducted at five and sold to a stranger who bought her to the orphanage for care. Her mother, Emma, Emma must be contacted at once! It was now up to Peter to collect the broken pieces. For Brown was completely devastated and beyond anyone’s note-worthy reproach or approval. Grief and joy; sympathy and admonitions were tied up in one huge confusing emotion.
Brown put a hand on Peter’s arm and Peter slowly led him to the cart. This house of welcome seemed cold. Those doors now firmly locked. They returned to the buggy and Peter slowly drove them out of the Carpenter’s premises. The long journey back gave Brown sufficient time to settle down.
“Now that I’ve finally found her, I want Rosie to come home to live with us, Peter. I must write to Emma at once.”
“Tell me, please, how did it all happen?”
“How did it happen?”
“Yes, farmer Brown, how did it happen?”
“Well, I took Jim for a walk as you already know.”
“Then after a bit of chat-chat about the weather and our farms generally, I broached the subject. I took my wallet out and simply showed him Rosie’s picture. He didn’t say anything for a very long time and then he said, ‘who’re you? How did you get hold of this picture in that dress?’ I said, because this is my Rosie and I believe your Rose and my Rosie are the same people.’ ‘I need to sit down and breathe,’ he said, ‘Oh God, give me some breathing space.’ So he sat down and I sat quietly beside him until he found his bearings back. ‘Yes, yes, we brought her home in that dress. It was small by then but it fitted her just fine even after three years. Rose was eight by then. They don’t feed them much in that orphanage you know?’he said and I said, ‘I know, I know all about Badgerys’ Creek orphanage.’ ‘You do? Hey, you do, right?’ he said. ‘Then you must also know that Rose is ours now. No power in this world can take her from us. We adopted her legally from the orphanage.’ ‘Is that a threat?’ I asked. By now, I started to panic, desperately trying to get Rosie back from him.‘You do know that Rosie was stolen from us.’ I said.’ Stolen? No, no I don’t. They never told us anything about her past,’ he said. ‘Well, one day when we are both a little calmer, I shall tell you all about it. For now let’s just go back to Rosie,’ I said. ’Lydia, Lydia would still have that dress in the closet somewhere.’ He was panicking too.’I don’t need to see it. I only want to know if this is my Rosie.’ Farmer Brown paused and Peter looked at him through the corner of his eyes. He nodded and kept nodding as a sign of acknowledgement,“I had only one thing on my mind, Peter. To find out for sure, if indeed that was my little girl.”
The evening had mellowed by now. Night falling gradually over the shadow of the distant mist. Peter had a strange thought that had nothing do with these worldly affairs. He thought what if every life on earth stopped giving birth. He envisaged a world where the old would die and ‘Time’ would still continue to rule but, a subjectless state - an empty planet; a ghastly, empty, blue planet, just like the red or the frozen, the dwarf or any of the other planets in the universe, without a speck of life. What sort of a world would that be? Seeing Peter engrossed in thoughts, Brown said nothing.
“Now that you’ve found Rose. Are you any wiser?” asked Peter suddenly.
Brown was pensive for a while and then replied quietly.
“Well, I should’ve thought of the orphanage. I don’t know why I didn’t at the time. I relied on the police to find her and just happy in the thought that Rose’s body wasn’t found. To me, it meant she was alive. What more could I had asked for? What a fool, I had been!”
“Yeah, I just hope it’s not too late to bring Rose home.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Rose has a home. A safe house that has protected her all those years. Why would she leave it?
“Because, I’m her biological father.”
“And they raised her with all the love they could muster; a choice between infinite love and kinship? What’s it going to be?”
“Blood’s always thicker, no matter what happens.”
“Orphanage is not a safe-haven. You should’ve done better and looked for her there. The Carpenters saved Rose from their atrocities.”
Brown remained quiet.
“We need to get home. I am drained,” Brown said.
“So am I.”
Dusk had fallen over the gum-trees along the side-road. The horse rode through dirt, and pebbles over the uneven tract. The drive was lonely and dark. Brown struck a match in the dark and bent over to light a small lantern, hanging by the carriage.
“Do you think Rose knows by now?” Brown asked twiddling his thumb somewhat.
“I really don’t know,” Peter said honestly.
Brown kept up his gaze as the horses darted down the dirt road. He speculated that Rosie must be thrilled to hear about the existence of her biological father.
“We must make another trip tomorrow to Emma’s parent house.”
“Is that where she is?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t been in touch since she left you.”
“We’ll send a telegram before we go. I have their address somewhere.”
“Are your parents-in-law still alive?”
“Don’t know. Doesn’t seem like it. It has been a long thirty years, now.”
“When Emma left, you were still young. Why did you not take another wife?”
“Another wife? Emma’s the only one for me; my love of life.”
Peter felt foolish. Love was something he hadn’t factored in.
“How does one feel when in love?”
“You’ll know. You feel anything for Rose?
“She’s a beauty,” Peter smiled.
“She looks like Emma when I first met her, an angel in the garden of Eden. I was smitten and still am,” Brown nodded.
They were home. Peter drove in through the gate of the farm and parked the cart up at the door. He jumped off as did Brown and both of them dismantled the horse and walked it inside the stable by the barn. Then they entered through kitchen door later, as the farm slept in silence. Through the kitchen, they plodded up the staircase; Brown in the lead and Peter right behind.
The next morning Brown woke up with smile on his face. Much work was needed to be done today. First and foremost was to get in touch with Emma. He sat down to write a letter and found Emma’s parent’s address. His loyalty for Emma was unquestionable; he wrote several drafts and crunched them up in paper balls. At last he wrote.
I know it has been a long thirty years since you left me. You were angry with me because I couldn’t find little Rosie. Well! I have news. Good news. I hope this will find you in good health. Oh! Emma, Emma Brown. Guess what? I found Rose. I found her for you, my darling little bird. She is well. She has grown into a beautiful, confident lady.
PS. Please write back to me as soon as you receive this.
Brown sat with the note in his hand for a while thinking of mailing it in the afternoon post. In the unlikely event of Jim not passing on this vital information to Rose, it would have a harrowing effect in all families. To avoid this, something else needed to be planned. This time around, Brown must do it right. Then he thought of Peter. What if Peter could be persuaded into a relationship with Rose? Cupid’s bow must cast a stiff bull’s eye. He went downstairs to search for Peter. Peter was in the Sty mixing fodder for the pigs. Bent deep over the hog trough, his arms stirred the corn and the soybean meal. He realised much later that Brown had entered.
“What’s up?” he asked looking up at Brown.
“I’m sending a letter to Emma.”
By now Peter stood straight up.
“Something needs to be done. Rose must see her mum.”
“Of course, she must.”
“I got a plan.”
“Are you crazy? She’ll never have me this way.”
“Why not? Can you think of another plan?”
“One day, I’ll start a business and you’ll be a part of it.”
“Sounds good. What about Rose?”
“Let me handle this. Now, you go inside and make yourself a nice cuppa. By the looks of it, you didn’t get any sleep last night, did ye’ now?”
Brown scratched his stubbles slovenly and looked at Peter’s honest to goodness face.
“Trust me,” Peter whispered.
“I trust you, Peter, you’re the best thing that’s happened to me after Rose and Emma.”
Brown left after that and Peter sat down beside the wallowing pigs. The first thing that came to his mind was to make money. He had heard about the Gold-rush and people’s mad punting over it in New South Wales. He decided to join them in search for Gold before he proposed to marry Rose Brown. At the moment, she was Rose Carpenter but soon to be wedded to Peter Baxter, becoming Rose Baxter. What’s in a name?
By: Mehreen Ahmed
The city’s spirit is aptly sensed, by none, other than Gil, in Midnight in Paris. La Ville-Lumiere or “the city of light,” as Paris sometimes is called, is full of cultural sophistication and sensuous get up; something it owes largely to fashion, the glamour glitz and a tradition of fine arts. A city decorated with gardens and a regal past, as well as a place where kings and queens have lived, ruled, and fought bloody revolutions. Just as the Tuileries and the Chateaus symbolize the splendor of the royal heritage, the huge endowment, the French revolution, marks a turning point in history, as documented in Dickens’, The Tale of two cities and Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Of course, we already know about the much needed French history; how the mighty rulers perished under the guillotine. However, it is quite a different feeling to visit those sites in the flesh. These streets have taken me back to the past; I see though a porthole of my mind’s eye, the passing chain of events; the artists, writers and the poets mingling, having coffee together and discussing topics, both enlightening and eternal; Edith Piaf, Flaubert and Maupassant; I almost see Flaubert writing Madam Bovery. Those very words, as he crafts them patiently, into the delicate artistry of writing:
“He was happy now, without a care in the world. A meal alone with her, a stroll along the highway in the evening, the way she touched her hand to her hair, the sight of her straw hat hanging from a window hasp, and many other things in which it had never occurred to him to look for pleasure — such now formed the steady current of his happiness.”
And then I come back with a jolt, to the ordinariness of the present. However, not for long because Maupassant is here too, writing passionately his poignant lines in Neckless.
“She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt to be desired; to be wildly attractive and sought after.”
I do not blame Gil for leaving his girlfriend and falling in love with Adriana; for I feel, the woman in Neckless was perhaps much like her, tender, as the night.
My bed and breakfast hotel, Mercure, is situated in the heart of the Grand Boulevard. It is flanked by intertwining narrow lanes, with many Jewish restaurants, cafés and bakeries; pictures of Netanyahu hang on the walls of some of these restaurants. As the Euro train stops at the Paris station, I look around the place and realize that it looks like any other European city; except, that buildings have no Roman pillars, arches or duomos, but is uniquely French with Mansard roofs and Baroque architecture. I take a taxi to the Paris gate. As I enter it, I am dazzled by the magnificent palaces, situated on both sides. These, I gather, are the original Tuileries palaces on the bank of the River Seine.
The river Siene also bears testament of its earliest settlers. Around 250 B.C, a Celtic Senones sub-tribe known as Parisii inhabited on its bank. In Celtic-Gaelic, however, the word was Parisio meaning, ‘the working people.’ The Roman conquest in 52 BC led to another settlement on the left bank of Saint Genevieve Hill. Under the Gallo-Roman culture, the city was known as Lutetia. It became quite prosperous during the Roman rule and the city expanded to a great extent. The Romans built palaces, forums, temples and amphitheatre. But they fell in the 5th century. Since then, Paris witnessed the Germanic conquest. The Frankish King Clovis from Merovingian dynasty, held France in a strong grip for many years, until they were deposed by the Carolingian dynasty.
That was the bygone era; but today’s Paris is remarkably urbane and cultivated; it has evolved over-time into this great hub of music, painting and literary works that Midnight in Paris depicts; literature and art flourishing from strength to strength.
The home of this huge collection of art work is the Louvre; one of the greatest museums of our times. The louvre is housed within the palace Louvre, in the cluster of the Tuileries. When Louis X1V decided to make Versailles his residence, his palace Louvre was transformed and extended, into a museum, only to display royal antiques and antique sculptures from 1682-1692. However, in the aftermath of the French revolution, by the decree of the royal assembly, the museum exhibited, not just the royal artifacts, but also many international objects; now its acquisitions are consisted of a series of relics from Egyptian and Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman; Islamic art, sculpture, decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings.
Among the many candle polished statues, the most notable ones are the classical figurines. These are Venus, the Roman goddess of love, Artemis the Greek goddess of war, Diomedes the war hero and Zeus himself. Along with mummies and the lion head Sphinx, Islamic terracotta cup from Iraq 9th century BC and many multicolored vases with Arabic calligraphy, including the Persian Ibex Rhyton, as ancient as 600-300 BC.
The Mona Lisa is here of course; it is displayed within a small picture frame, which somewhat distracts me from the picture itself. The picture can not be viewed for minute details, because tourists are never allowed to go up close. Whether or not this is the original work of Leanardo Da Vinci or a fake replica, there is no way to tell; but the portrait hangs in front of me, as though it is; the much revered Mona Lisa, no less; with that slight smile, still holds the world captive.
The other oil paintings in the gallery, hang splendidly; mounted on the wall, showcased next to each other, they are a harmonious splash of riotous color. Some of them are La Grande Odalisque an 1814 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; and then several on Nepolean’s coronation of himself as well as of Josephine 1804; a Louis David, 1788, The Loves of Paris and Helen, and The Last Supper in 1648 by Phillippe de Champaigne. Marie de Medici Queen of France by Frans II Pourbus is also in the Lourve.
Interestingly, as the guide tells us, the Marie Medici of Florence, became Queen of France through marriage to King Henry IV. But she had terrible reputation. She was known to have a bad temper, fighting constantly with her husband’s mistresses; that too in shocking language. Contrary to the enchantress of Florence in Rushdie’s acclaimed novel, she was, but an embarrassment to the court of France.
It would take something of an eternity, to fully grasp the great museums of the world, and Louvre is no exception. Gil is prepared to spend a life time with artists and writers, I feel just about the same way. Somehow, they come back to life, to haunt us and to taunt our modern lifestyle, for the sterility that there is.
The charms of the past pull Gil; no matter how compelling; it pulls me too, but I resist it just the same; I must get back to my own decade. However, I do not have a lover to sacrifice or watch helplessly, as she slides back to renaissance, and to the golden age, unable to make the transition into the colorless new world.
Back on the street; dusk falls over the far horizon; it starts to drizzle; the city, lights up.
The evening is infused with Edith Piaf’s non, jen e regretted rien; I am just as enthralled as Gil; I walk in the rain, the same narrow, brick pavements, under the French street lamps; the trumpet and the saxophone play a duet and the Parisians wake up to its tune. It is the evening of romance, dance and enjoyment. Through the partly open elongated French windows, men and women look out at the musicians, as they continue to play.
Soon it is dark and people jostle on the streets either to go to movies, theatres or restaurants for dinner. The road-side restaurants bustle with people; waiters try to cram them in every possible corner.
A cosmopolitan city, like London, these restaurants offer varied cuisine; not just European but Asian and Middle-Eastern; but unlike London, everybody speaks French here, opposed to the many ethnic languages, spoken on the streets of London. The British are perhaps more tolerant of multilingualism than the French. I have my dinner at a Jewish restaurant up the road from the hotel; Cous Cous and lamb followed by a cappuccino.
I always believed Paris to be spectacular; it is actually so; especially, by night when darkness covers the several pot holes of the narrow streets. My imagination flies high; I wait for my taxi to return to the hotel.
When Gil awaits his taxi, it carries him into a different realm, in pursuit of art; I say, I ain’t Gil, but my soul is heavy just the same, like a soaked up sponge, caught up in the enchantment of the Parisian past, on this summer midnight.
By: Mehreen Ahmed
Once, there lived three friends, Una, Ulle and Ursula. While they were all outgoing, Una was a bit shy, Usha was not and Ursula, the happy medium, perfectly poised between the two. Ulle’s vivacity sometimes angered Una to the hilt. One day, they went out to have coffee and as they were looking for a place to sit down, Una said haltingly as always that she wanted to sit at the far end of the room. This enraged Ulle.
“You’re really awkward, you know!” She said. “And why can’t we sit in the middle?”
“Because, I’m embarrassed.”
“Who do you think would look at you?”
“May be no-one!”
“Still you’re, the way you are! You will not change.”
“I can’t change; you should know that by now.”
“Now, now let’s not waste time arguing over seats,” Ursula chimed in. “Why can’t we all sit in that corner next to the wall, best of both worlds?”
They both nodded in agreement as they walked through the crowded restaurant towards the semi-dark corner of the room. Una sat down with her back towards people so she didn’t have to look at them and vice versa, and Ulle sat grudgingly opposite her with Ursula in the middle. Once settled in their seats, they ordered coffee and orange almond which they loved so much. The friends soon forgot their differences and started to chat. They were in their mid-life but when they got together, became ageless. Nothing could change the way they giggled and the way they nattered.
“Well! I’m going to buy flowers on my way home to-day.” Ursula said suddenly becoming aware of her surrounding. Quietly she lowered her gaze towards the coffee cup.
“For whom! I hope you haven’t got a secret admirer?”
“May be I do Ulle, who knows?” she said stirring the coffee as she poured more milk and added half a spoon of sugar to it.
“No! Not at our age, I don’t think,” said Una.
“It’s a deep secret,” she said rolling her eyes in mischief. “However, I may tell you one-day.”
“May?” asked Una apprehensively. “Why may, is there a reason?”
“No! Oh God no! I need to get going; I am a bit rushed today.”
They finished coffee rather hurriedly and picked up their hand bags. This was not how they parted. They would usually sail out of the café in pure euphoria laughing, rejoicing and promising to meet again. But today it was somewhat different. Ursula said goodbye and quickly dashed off in the opposite direction to both Una and Ulle’s surprise.
“I wonder what she’s up to,” Ulle muttered.
“Dunno, she didn’t really want to share it with us, hey.”
They left it at that.
Ursula walked hastily towards her car and turned the key in the ignition. She headed off North and stopped by a corner shop to pick up some flowers. Her car disappeared slowly over the horizon as it sped down the hump of the road.
The next morning, the phone rang and Una let it ring for awhile until it stopped. She had a pot of beef casserole on the stove. She quickly finished stirring it and then turned it off. The phone rang again and this time she picked it up.
"Yeah, how’s it going?” Ulle said clearing her throat.
“Not bad, how’re you?”
“Any news from our mysterious friend?”
“Not yet, I wonder what she’s up to.”
“Why not ask her?”
“O, look I don’t think I could, why don’t you?”
“Yeah, well in that case I shall, I shall ask her to meet up tomorrow.”
“That’s a good idea; see you tomorrow then.”
“Sure, bye for now.”
Ulle could not wait to see Ursula the next day. Both Una and Ulle went to the café a little early bubbling with excitement. The mystery would be solved soon. They would most certainly find out who that secret admirer is. This was most unnatural for somebody as unromantic as Ursula to buy flowers for anyone … someone so rational almost to the point of being dispassionate. Why? Didn’t she take a vow that she would remain single because she did not like children? Oh, here she comes! Both Ulle and Una sat up eagerly looking at her from their table as Ursula sauntered in.
“No fights over the seats today?” she commented.
“Goodness me! I didn’t even realize that I was sitting in the middle of this madding crowd!” Una screamed.
Ulle looked at Una and then at Ursula, aghast.
Ursula kept looking at them both as she took her seat a little bewildered. They ordered the usual but there was an unexpected silence. No one made any utterance at all. Una signaled Ulle who cringed back as words suddenly iced-up. It was unbelievable that Ulle of all people could be so coy. This was extraordinary indeed! Friends have swapped personalities, revealing an entirely new side to their characters. So, when they asked nothing, Ursula thought it was up to her to break the ice.
“I guess, you’re wondering, what secrets I’m keeping from you guys?” She said openly amused as she sipped the fuming coffee.
“Yes!” They both said together.
“Well, I would like to show you something.”
She opened her bag and her hands delved into it as she took her mobile phone out. Then she pressed the buttons on the phone until she came to ‘view photos.’ Flicking the photos one after another in the mobile, she chose one and then clicked it to open. Walla! It was a photo of a beautiful child.
“This is who I take the flowers for,” she said.
“But who is she?” Una asked.
“My little girl!”
“Your little girl? Since when? You don’t even like children!”
“I never said that.”
“Yes you did!” Ulle said with eyes wide open.
“I said, I couldn’t raise one,” a furtive, Mona Lisa smile appeared in the corner of her lips as she replied nonchalantly. She’s an orphan, I pay for her upkeep.”
“Really! How long have you had her?” Una asked.
“You didn’t tell us all this time. Why tell us now?” Ulle harangued.
“Because, I got caught out! I didn’t think I would.”
“Do you love her?” Una asked softly.
“I think so.
“Does she like flowers? Perhaps she would like chocolates better,” Ulle suggested.
“May be, but I do! I like buying flowers! For others and for me,” she paused. “Besides it’s spring; look around you, look at the mad colours as flowers blossom in infinite profusion! We ought to celebrate, oughtn’t we?”
“Incredible!” said Ulle.
“Indeed,” said Una.
“Bizarre?” said Ursula.
No one knew for sure when, how or why the change of heart ever occurred! It was suspected that it might have to do with instinct.
By: Mehreen Ahmed
Meaka woke up with a cold sweat. By the clock sitting next to her on the bedside table, it was three in the morning. She lay there in the dark, cold and sleepless thinking of getting out of bed. But somehow she could not. Her limbs would not give an inch and yet her brain kept saying otherwise. It felt as though it was racing — and racing it was like crazy.
In the semi-darkness she looked across the room — an empty chair. Her gaze fixed on it almost asking it for a solution but this overwhelming inertia was hard to knock off. Restlessness seized her when she finally got out of bed. It was four`0’ clock. Just a few hours from now, she was meeting a friend for coffee. Quietly slipping into her sandals she grabbed her dressing gown, opened the door softly and went into the living room closing the door behind her. She turned one of the blinds poles to look through the narrow blade slits. The dark sky over the horizon had only just started to glow. Meaka waited for the sun. It steadily came up spreading some of that hue across the sky. She was going to have breakfast with Riana soon. A strange sort of pleasure possessed her at the thought. Last week’s coffee meeting was such an eye-opener; none of Riana’s stories moved her so much, as did this one.
Riana was 35. An accident left her disabled, when she was 5 years old. She had a rough childhood ever since. No one played with her at school. Friendless, she grew up feeling rejected, frustrated, and empty until she met Rick — her knight in shining armour who took all her worries away and filled her with new sensation. Now, married with two lovely boys, she lives with Rick in the next suburb —Campsie.
Meaka and Riana had been friends for over two years. For Riana,Meaka is her best friend, her shoulder to cry on. And for Meaka, well! The relationship is just getting warmed up. Waiting for Riana at the Coffee Club, Meaka flicked through the menu thinking what was holding her up. She was generally not this late. Her mobile rang out as she tried to call her. Meaka waited for ten more minutes — and then there she was, getting out of her car.
She wore a tweed short skirt and a red top with a deep neckline. Her cascading black hair shone in the golden sun as she crossed the road. At a slow pace she came on to the other side, holding her little boy’s hand securely, limping as usual.
“Hi Meaka,” Riana said cheerfully.
“Hi, I have been waiting forever now,” she said pulling the chair next to her.
“And how are you, mate?” Meaka asked the little boy.
“What took you so long?”
“Oh it’s a long story.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“My mother-in-law again.” Riana said nearly breaking down in tears.
“What happened? Last week you said that she had issues with your disability. What did she have to say now? Has she not said enough already?”
“Well! She keeps on saying the same thing over and over again like a broken record. She knew fully well what I was like when I married Rick, but she did not have any objections then,” Riana said trying to hold back the stinging tears.
“Suddenly, after all these years, eight years, she decided that she did not like me anymore. Her fears are that my disability will be passed onto her grand-children.”
“But how? This was caused by an accident, not genetic or contagious.”
“Try and make her understand that!” Riana said passionately and then in the same tone continued. “I cannot take these insults any more — just can’t. I tried to tell Rick, he thinks I am lying. He thinks his mother is perfect and is not capable of doing anything as low as this.”
“Have you confronted her before Rick?”
“Yes, she denies having said anything.”
“She makes it a point to hurt me at every opportunity she gets, especially, when Rick is away. She pouts her lips like this,” she mimicked. “I don’t like you, I wish I did, but I don’t, I don’t like the way you walk.”
By now hot tears rolled down Riana’s cheeks while her, bewildered little boy sat there looking at her. “Riana darling, let’s just order coffee, shall we? We don’t want to put him through all this now. Do we?”
Rising from her chair, she ordered a short sugarless Macchiato for herself and two small Timtams for Riana and the little boy. As they sipped their drinks silently, the little boy who sat opposite to her suddenly grabbed Raina’s forearm, startling them both a little.
“Mum’s still a mum, no matter what!”
“Yes darling. You couldn’t be more right!” Meaka said not sure how much he knows. “
"Last night Betty tried to hit me,” Riana said.
“Really! Did you call the police?”
“No,” was the terse answer.
“The other day, a guy came up to me asking me out but I said no, I told him I was married.” Riana said unexpectedly taking a sip from the Timtams.
“Do you love Rick?”
“I think so. But if I leave him I am going to go away from here.”
“Where would you go?”
“Dunno, may be Ireland.” “
"What would you do for a living?”
“I have money; I got compensation money for my accident. Sometimes, I think Rick married me because of that.”
“How do you know?”
“Every time we go out for dinner, he asks me to pay for my share,” she said somewhat bleakly.
“But he’s got money. Has he not?”
“Yeh, he does. He works and he has enough.” Meaka did not push it. Whatever was going on, Riana did not deserve this abusive bahaviour. She was fine in every other way. She took good care of her children, cleaned, cooked, drove around town. A little disoriented at times — a fallout from the accident, but it did not affect her daily chores. She led a life as independently as anyone else. Meaka did not understand why people would go out of their way to be cruel to her. Anyway, coffee was good, they got up to leave, said goodbye and promised to meet again next week, same time, same place.
The little boy gave Meaka a hug and as they went their separate ways Meaka saw how other people looked at Riana as if she had the plague or something. Meaka went to buy some groceries on her way home. But she could not help thinking about Riana. Life did not treat her well. She was a victim of circumstances quite beyond her control. If her mother-in-law wanted a separation on account of this, that would not be fair at all. She was happy for them to get married eight years ago. Why is she doing this now?
Riana’s words kept resonating in her mind as she drove through the suburbs of Sydney. Her wheels crushed the soft petals of the Poinciana and the Jacaranda that lay on the way. They were a collaboration of colours as they descended softly on the street. How ironical that we trample the very things sometimes that give us joy.
Still feeling a little heady from the Macchiato, Meaka sat thinking what to do next when the phone rang. She picked it up and it was Riana again. “Hello, darl! How are you? Did you get home safely? Meaka asked.
“Yes, I did. Look, what are you doing tomorrow night?” she asked pausing.
“Nothing much, why?”
“Would you like to have dinner with my parents tonight?”
“Sure, why not. Is Betty going to be there as well?”
“No.” Riana replied. She is leaving for Melbourne tonight.” She answered unenthusiastically.
“OK, I’ll come.”
“See you tomorrow then.”
“Absolutely.” Meaka said before she hung up.
Raina sounded cheerful enough. A bit too cheery she thought for her state of mind. But then she herself was in good spirits as well. She suddenly felt angry at Rick for being so passive, not to mention an extortionist.
The next day, Meaka put her casual jeans on and a white top for the party. She picked up a mud cake on the way for the kids. By the time she reached the place it was a little over seven. She turned the red Toyota into the driveway but the garage door was open. Meaka thought that it was because they were expecting her. And yes they were. As soon as she got out of the car Rick greeted her with a smile.
Rick was a tall, thin bloke with curly blonde hair. He combed it backwards today making the forehead look wider and the cheek bones more prominent as the sunken cheeks deepened. Although, his pale complexion gave him a sickly look, it was aptly compensated by his friendly demeanor. He wore a blue T-Shirt and a pair of khaki shorts.
“Hey, Rick how is it going?”
“Where is Riana?”
“Upstairs. She won’t be long.”
“How has your day been?” Riana asked breaking the awkward silence.
“Not too bad, how was yours?”
Thinking how little she actually accomplished through the day. Rick and Meaka were sitting at the kitchen table perched on bar chairs discussing about lawns and landscaping when Riana walked in. Meaka thought, there was a look of cold disapproval on her face which lasted for less then a second. It was as though she resented Rick and Meaka seated next to each other having a conversation. For a moment, Meaka felt betrayed. The more she thought the more confused she got. So she decided to suspend her thoughts for the time being.
“Hi!” “Hi, how are you?” Meaka asked to match the pitch of her voice as she got off the chair to give her a hug.
“Good,” she added cheerfully.
“Rick was just telling me about his plans to do a makeover for the garden.”
“Oh ye, we have been thinking about that for a while now. I have been telling Rick to get rid of the Bougainvilleas. I don’t like them,” she said that in nonchalantly.
“Can you give me a cutting before you do that? I would love to have one in my back-yard.”
“Sure, once my mother-in-law comes up for Christmas. She knows how to do these things. I don’t.”
“What’s there to know, darling? All you do is cut an offshoot from the plant. That’s all,” Rick said affectionately.
“Yes, since she is so good, shouldn’t you let her do the job so Meaka would have a nice piece?” Riana said making a point.
“Yeh, but we don’t know when she can come? Do we?” He said a little subdued.
Meaka thought she was gradually being dragged into a situation which was soon going to become ugly and out of hand. She changed the subject quickly by asking about her parents who were supposedly joining them for dinner. What a coincidence! There they were at the door. After the initial round of introductions, Mike and Nelly, Riana’s dad and mum, sat down with everyone in the living room. They were a good looking, middle-aged couple in their sixties. She was a brunette with short hair, sharp features and Mike had rugged features, black hair just like Riana’s. Nelly wore a floral dress of red and white with white slippers while he had a casual, white coloured shirt on with a pair of ordinary jeans.
Nelly stooped slightly but she was just as graceful. Over a drink of coke, Riana was telling them how they (Rick, Riana and the kids) were booked on a flight for the U.S.A for a concert of her favourite band. And Meaka who was not familiar with the band made no comments. The chatting went on for a while when Rick excused himself to go into the kitchen to get dinner started.
They had roast beef, boiled vegetables and mashed potatoes with gravy. A fairly simple dinner cooked by Riana but delicious. The kids ate as much as they could and said sorry and thank you at Riana’s command through-out dinner every time they needed to. And Meaka observed Riana overdid it at times. But rules had to be strictly obeyed — at least in this house. Apart from this there were no other dramas but Meaka could not help but notice the dark scowl of an expression on Riana’s face every time Rick spoke to Meaka.
Consumed with possessiveness, Riana found it hard to hide those feelings. Meaka also caught sight of Nelly’s slightly deformed wrist. When asked, she said that it was from an accident too. She once fell off a motorbike.
Inevitably, it was Raina’s dad, Mike, who brought up the subject once Rick went upstairs. “What’s Betty up to these days? We haven’t seen her in five years, I’d say. How are things?” He asked plainly not suspecting anything.
“Not too well I am afraid, she left just last night,” and then added with a pause.
“She wants to take the kids away from me, thinks she’s the one who should raise them because they are Rick’s.”
“Rubbish! They are yours as well.” Nelly said in suppressed anger.
“I know. But she does not see it that way. One day, she said that children would be disabled like me if I continued to mother them long enough.”
Silly as it is, Meaka was thankful that kids went to bed. They didn’t need to hear this. She was frightful of Rick though who could be back in the room anytime now. There was no telling what might happen then, if he overheard this conversation.
Eventually, Rick did come downstairs and asked happily if any one wanted dessert. Everybody said no. Meaka thought it was time to leave. Politely, she said goodbye and went to the car. She was more saddened by the whole episode than angry. She thought of the eternal debate between free-will and pre-destination. Are we to believe that suffering is the consequence of actions pre-determined by cosmic rules which lay beyond our comprehension? We then become mere pawns. Or can we prevent those actions from happening?
She was going to have another sleepless night undoubtedly. But to her surprise she slept and she slept quite well; the promising next day, brought considerable joy when the phone rang. To her surprise it was Rick.
“Meaka?” Rick said in his smooth placid voice.
“Yes? Its Rick isn’t it?” She sounded surprised.
“How are you?” “Not too bad,” he replied evenly.
“What’s up?” Meaka asked clearly inquisitively.
“Riana told me to give you a call ASAP,” he said unflinchingly.
“What’s wrong, Rick? Is she all right?”
“I hope so.” Rick said trying to be as calm as possible.
“She has had a miscarriage this morning.”
“What! You mean Riana was pregnant?”
“You didn’t know? How come?” Rick was totally puzzled thought Meaka was pulling his leg.
“That would be the million dollar question, wouldn’t it?” Meaka replied feeling a bit let down.
“How many weeks was she?”
“Well, if your mum had stayed two more days, then she could have helped out with the kids,” Meaka said trying to be level headed.
“Could you not ask her to come again?”
“I don’t understand. What are you saying?” Rick said totally taken aback.
“I am talking about your Mum, Betty,” Meaka said nervously.
“Mum? My mum?” he confirmed.
“Yes! Your mum. Why is there a problem?”
“No, but she hasn’t been up here in ages!”
“What! What’re you talking about?”
“She is dying, Meaka — Mum’s dying from breast cancer!”
She was speechless. Her handset nearly fell off. She quickly grabbed nearby chair.
“Mum didn’t want any one to know. That’s why we kept it a secret. But I would have thought you knew!”
“No, I did not. I am so sorry for you?” Meaka said, confounded, when she finally found her voice.
“Did you want to leave the kids with me? You’re welcome to do so,” she offered anyway.
“Could I? That would be fantastic!”
“See you in awhile then?”
“See you soon.” Meaka was numb. She stared at the empty wall and continued to stare —dazed and numb. What would really help now was a shot of macchiato, she mused.
Author’s note: Macchiato is Italian for “stained” or“marked”. In this story it has a double meaning : coffee as well as blemish or tarnish.
By: Mehreen Ahmed
One black wintry night, Piccolo -Xavier bumped into someone while crossing the road. Once he was across, the person on the receiving end was not visible anymore. It seemed that in the Parisian dark alley, it had just melted into darkness. When he peered further, he saw a black coat disappearing around the corner. Piccolo-Xavier started to run; however, the more he ran, further the person moved away. Breathing heavily he stopped to rest when his gaze shifted towards a shiny object that seemed to appear on an uneven asphalt footpath. As he stooped to pick it up, the lead was gone.
It was a locket with a broken clasp. He opened it to see what was inside. In the insufficient street lamp, he saw that it was a picture of a girl. This object could be of sentimental value, Piccolo-Xavier thought. But the black coat was long gone and there was no way he could return it to the owner.
Back in his apartment looking at the girl’s picture, the thought of the elusive dark figure provoked all kinds of questions. Where did the bearer of this object live? How far away was he or she from him? Who was the girl in the picture? Piccolo –Xavier began to imagine the wildest of the dreams about the bearer of the locket who was perhaps the little girl’s mum, dad or even an older sibling. It gave him immense pleasure to think that it could be an attractive young woman with whom he could form a relationship. Flashes back to the encounter encouraged his fantasy which did not seem that his mystery person had a man’s gait rather a woman’s – elegant, slender and tall. The face he envisioned was framed in dark short hair with curls falling over her smooth white narrow forehead. Her tilted nose rested just above full, red lips and an oval shaped chin. Her tiny dimpled cheeks came alive every time she grinned. A ravishing set of white, even teeth flashed across the rounding corners of her lips. When she looked up at him with a shy gaze of indifference, her luminous large greenish blue eyes peeped through the long curly lashes of partly opened lids.
Dizzy from the thought Piccolo-Xavier could go on no longer. He went into slumber — shallow and peculiar, somewhere between real and surreal. The woman of this description existed perhaps, but is it only as a figment of his imagination? Could she somehow materialize for him, someday? He looked at his girl friend lying next to him and thought how she would react if she heard about all this! He drifted off to a land full of dreams and even more visions.
At breakfast next morning his girl friend Lorna had bought two croissants from the bakery and made fresh coffee. She poured him a cup biting into her croissant as he helped himself to milk.
“You were restless last night.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you not well?”
It was frustrating to think that he was participating in a conspiracy against himself — against them.
“Oh, no just a little headache — a bit nervous about my exhibit, I am afraid.”
“Do you know what you want to do? You do have a deadline, yeah?”
“I haven’t and that’s what’s been bugging me.”
He thought of the deadline and the woman in the black coat at the same time. It was hard to separate the two thoughts. And as Lorna observed his pensive mood, she did not press him any more. Whatever was going on in his mind was his to share with the muses alone, not with her. It had always been like that. Lorna was able to see the product only, never the parts of the process. She loved him nevertheless for the person that he was and for the artist that he aspired to become. Critics always said that the portrayal of his women was not lifelike; eyes too dull, bodies too wooden. Through it all he persevered.
Lorna cleared the table and went into the shower to get dressed for work. Deep character lines appeared on his narrow forehead while he delved into artistic thoughts.
On his way into the studio Piccolo-Xavier sat at the station looking at all the women in black coats: they came in all sizes and shapes. But no body walked like his dream woman.
On the train, he sat next to the window and let out a sigh of despair. He began to see himself dating this lady through fragmented snapshots; holding hands at the park, kissing her full lips beneath the weeping willow tree, making passionate love on the snow white sheets of heavenly bliss. He imagined her in every possible way he could, so much so that it now hurt – she was there and yet not close enough. Is he cheating on Lorna? Being this way? Thinking this way? Can he help himself? Now there’s a question!
The train stopped at central station. As he got out, he felt that this had become a big issue in his life, him being a slave to his imagination. He could not forget her, a mere stranger – a faceless phantom! He conversed with her — loudly at times, had dinner at restaurants, drove together into the sunset and then danced with her in the silence of the night. He looked into her deep eyes and kept looking as though there was no tomorrow. Someone honked when he jolted back to reality. He had left his studio far behind, now retraced his footsteps. He walked into the studio brooding that he could do so much better with Lorna.
As time passed slowly, Piccolo-Xavier saw himself painting the snapshots. On the canvas, he furiously painted a collage of eyes, nose and mouth. Then the hands, the legs, until a slender shape began to take form; eventually, he painted a black coat over the figure. Although not intended, the portrait did look quite surrealistic. Every detail was done to perfection down to the unclasped locket dangling her tapering fingers, including the lifelike picture of the little girl peeking through. He called it, The Black Coat.
He sat in front of it looking intently. His disheveled dark hair showed signs of age, especially on the side burns. On the canvas his penetrating dark deep eyes tried to see more than what was visible. As he put the brush away on the round table beside the canvas, one radiant smile of satisfaction spread across his face. Then he cloaked the painting and deemed it ready for the exhibition.
On his way home, he went to the same place as his eyes searched here and there and everywhere hoping to find her somewhere. Suddenly the awareness that he did not even know what she looked like left him empty but still felt that he knew her somehow, smelled her perfume in the air. Overcome with desolation, he sat down on a bench by the lamp post supporting his head against the palm of his hand with elbow crux placed on his lap. It started to drizzle and then rain followed soon skewing down the street lamp under the dark starless sky. Soaking wet, he got up and walked back home hoping that one day, may be one day he would meet her in person.
The exhibition being only seven days away, his obsession grew by the day towards this unknown, unseen human creature. He was concerned that this was getting out of hand, but he could not help it. This pent-up emotion made him mad at times, felt he needed a let-up.
Thereof on the day of the exhibition, The Black Coat hung in one of the walls of the Taiss gallery. It received much attention, more than what Piccolo-Xavier thought it would; surrealism sat well with art lovers. Then in the most serendipitous manner there was a cry — a girl cried out in the midst of this urbane arty crowd.
Piccolo-Xavier turned around toward the direction of the cry. He stood frozen in the middle of the room. Time seemed to have come to a hasty stop. The compliments that people paid, the autographs that they desired or even the potential buyers who flocked around him went into listless oblivion. All that mattered was the resounding cry cutting through the space of that room. This was not a dream. The lady in the black coat and the child, no less than the manifestation of the picture in the locket, stood in the room. Once that dumb-founded moment passed he decided to introduce himself to her. He mustered enough courage to take himself to them.
The girl still had the expression of sheer surprise on her mouth while her companion stood staring at the picture in utter amazement. Piccolo-Xavier coughed a little as he approached. Once within the line of vision, he noticed that she did not have dark hair the way he had imagined but much longer and flowing. Those eyes were neither luminous nor shy, in fact much smaller, black and sharp as she looked at him, still very attractive, but not the image captured in his soul. Disappointed? No, he was not. He proceeded towards her with the same intensity that he had cherished all these days and as he came closer, she had almost left.
“Hello,” Piccolo-Xavier quickly extended a friendly hand.
The lady turned around taking his hand into hers. For one unbelievable moment he had her skin against his.
“I am Piccolo-Xavier, you must be wondering where I got all this.”
“Actually I was, and this picture, it’s not me!”
She blurted out in a shrill, angst-ridden voice with that index finger still in the air pointing towards the portrait inadvertently.
“I know,” he replied.
His chest heaved with excitement but his speech was measured.
“Would you join me for a coffee? I fear I have a lot to explain.”
“Sure, where would you like to go?”
“There’s a cafe downstairs.”
“Okay then, shall we?” Piccolo-Xavier led her.
They went to the Jewish café right across the road from the gallery. This cafe was quite popular with the people of his kind. And as they crossed the road together it was an incredible feeling that Piccolo-Xavier held the arm of the owner of the black coat. She had showed up at last! They sat down at the corner table inside the café.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours?”
“It is Julia,” she said slightly embarrassed for not introducing herself earlier. “And this is my daughter Chevon.”
“Hi Chevon,” he smiled.
They ordered two short black and a milk shake for the girl. Piccolo-Xavier noticed her curious wide eyes, as he handed her the drink. Overcome by an odd feeling, he had the most unusual emotional transformation as he described the events of that night to her. He felt, somewhat, more connected to the faceless black-coat than this woman, this young, attractive woman sitting before him.
“What do you do?” Piccolo-Xavier asked her.
“Oh! I am a student of visual art at the academy of fine arts; did you try to look for me?”
“Yes,” he answered.
They sipped their coffee and there was an awkward silence as neither of them knew what to say, and then, suddenly Julia looked at him.
“We broke up,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“My partner and I of-course!”
“O, I see.”
“Well! Aren’t you going to ask, why?”
“It’s not my place, I guess,” he said quietly.
“Would you like to have dinner with me at my place?”
“May be,” he said.
“How about next Sunday?” Julia asked.
There was an element of candidness in her behavior that was almost juvenile. Julia was taking him for granted! He felt rushed, pressured. The conversation was not going anywhere. And this left him disinclined.
“Look! Can we talk about this later?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want!”
She opened her bag and groped for a pen. When she found it, she wrote him her phone number and name on one of the serviettes on the table. She then handed her details to him smiling like a friendly teen-ager, while his thoughts roamed elsewhere to the dark lady of his dreams as he watched her scribble. He realized that the magic as far as Julia was concerned was lost. It was far too mundane and sullied for his artistic taste to carry on this affair.
“Call me,” she said.
Julia was quite taken by his charms; his non-committal responses as they said goodbye did not seem to dissuade her at all. Piccolo-Xavier was in love he knew, not with this woman of flesh and blood — but with the phantom. Committed to an unrequited love, a dual life he would lead perhaps sharing her with Lorna, the phantom whose shy luminous eyes would haunt him forever, and forever he would woo her. And when in the early hours of the morning they lay entwined in bed like a pair of Siamese twins, Lorna had Piccolo-Xavier all to herself; he was a celebrity at last as she had imagined him to be. In a way, she was famous too when her exultant pictures splashed across the newspapers with him on that momentous occasion; yet! The muses smiled at her predicament.