Short Story - Macchiato - Mehreen Ahmed
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.