Another hot day in the savannah, the young man, barely 24 wouldn’t take his eyes off her picture on facebook, I wrote as I looked out at a collage of zebras and giraffes farther on the open savan-nah. There they were, the animals, also talking how this man would do anything for this woman on whose profile he doted.
That was odd, but I wrote.
The man wrote secret messages to her saying he wanted to know her better; he wanted to speak to her. He even called her a few times, only to be disappointed. They chatted on facebook, using first names as endearment. But in the indomitable spirit of youth, the man demanded more. Her profile looked pretty. He wanted to know where she lived, what she ate for breakfast. He wanted to hear her voice on the phone. Then, one day, he asked her what she did. She told him singing was her hobby and that writing, her passion. She even got awards. Was she trying to sell him her books? Was she treating him like a potential client? She asked herself, as she allowed this relationship to grow.
I took a break from writing. I put my laptop down and went into the kitchen to make some tea. I thought, she knew what he ate for breakfast everyday, eggs, bread and tea. He also knew what she ate for breakfast everyday, coffee. Now, those were some intimate details about each oth-er. Should she tell him more? Egg him on? After all it was all virtual. No one had to come up front or needed to become personal. This was intriguing. I finished my tea and went back to my comput-er.
In the meantime a strong storm rose. The sky was shaded in grey patches of ink smudges. She could hear the wind rage outside the closed window. Lyre of unbroken strings, a rhythm trying to push through. This pensive, pale day of mourning for labour’s lost love. How would this story turn? A comedy, a tragedy, a humour? Where was morality in all this? Should morality even have a place? No. No. She must not indulge in this. She must tell him at once that she couldn’t go any fur-ther, prepare him for a romantic interlude. Why did it matter? Love of the heart, love of the mind, all was fair and square in affairs of love? No? A soulmate perhaps across long distance and time. Both a virtual and a virtuous relationship, that he was young, but he was also mature. She liked him. She liked him a lot. Wait! Should she block him? He was calling again. Her impulsive fingers like bare brown winter twigs, teetered on the brink of this fantasy/reality button. She went to edits op-tion on Whatsapp. She blocked him. She quickly rushed to block him on facebook and deleted all the messages on facebook and Whatsapp. There, all gone, a clean slate.
Then, she sat down quietly listening to the song of the winds. There was a song in her heart too. She looked out at the night and saw two shadows making love on the opposite balcony. She ran out to see more, but she saw two potted palm fronds rubbing each other in the dark. She took her phone absent-mindedly and went back to their chat. She had blocked this man. There were no new messages about how her mornings were. Whether she had her breakfasts. If she was taking care of herself? This intimacy, she deleted, murdered them at a brute press of a finger tip. But, here were no restraint buttons on her emotion. She began to miss him.
Which way was it all going? She was going to engage him in interesting conversations. She was going to unblock him. Before, she unblocked him, she tried to remember his last messages. How he asked her everyday, what she did and she had said, she wrote all day. Then he said, how come you never rest? She had allayed her fears. She felt, this man had something that pulled her. He had a sensitive heart and wanted to learn about life. He had even told her that he wanted to listen to her songs. So, should he call her? She had said no, no, never. He demanded why not, ever. She had said, she had her reasons. She had vulnerabilities. She was going to unblock him today. She had been really mean to this man. He had not done anything even remotely bad to deserve this. On the contrary, he had said he could give her a few lessons on his culture, the country he grew up in. That was rude that she had blocked him.
As soon as she unblocked him, she asked him why had he called? He apologised and told her that he didn’t mean to, it was an accident. She took him back. The usual chatting began all over. But she knew this was caprice, for her at least. What should she do? Play with his emotions a bit, feather them and brush them up in pale pink and blue with romance? The romantic flutters, the aahs and the oohs. Open up, let yourself go, revel in the warmth of young love, imagine yourself in his deep embraces and hot sighs on your hair. He, inhaling the fragrances of your hair; lips connected. Loves entwined! Let go! Let go!
Stop! Stop right there. I took my fingers off the computer. By now, the sizzling heat had mellowed on the far savannah. The Giraffes and the Zebras had left. I looked out at the stifling sun. It dipped down the horizon. The savannah stood aloof in the backdrop of a scarred night of pim-pled feral Hyenas, and wild spotted Dalmatians.
She was going to wreck him. She was going to woo him with her words, so he’d be glued to his phone. She was going to wrap him up in the powers of her poetry and beguile him so that he’d forget to eat his breakfasts; his sleeps would be a wet awakenings night sweats in the early hours. She was going to push him to the cliff where she would rule supreme like Venus, drive him to his fantasies and lock him in this gilded cage of her fling, her own little toy bird. Those sweet nothings, her magic potions, her fluttering joys. Could she be this heartless? That she would crush a half-fledged person of a man to his emotional demise? After all what was in it for her? An escape from this remarkable drudgery of boredom? It couldn’t be love. No. she couldn’t be that person. No mat-ter how lonely, how bored she was.
I took a break again. I walked over to the balcony. The heavy clouds glided across the sky in spectacular elegance; the biting winds on my face. Fly, fly away, the wings of poesy declared, a steamy romance in the air.
“Tell me, tell me, why do you not want me to call you?” he wrote.
“Because, I have problems.”
“Like what? You can tell me, yeah? Are you married? What is it?”
“No, I can’t. Forgive me, please forgive,” she pleaded. “Stop this. Does it matter if I’m mar-ried?”
“No, not at all, but I cannot stop now, I like you. I like you a lot. You cannot ask me to stop. I think, I’m in love.”
“In love with whom? Do you have a beautiful girlfriend?” her fingers trembled.
“Girlfriend? Must you ask? How did your breakfast taste this morning?”
“Good and you? she asked
“You had me for breakfast? How did I taste, my love, my sweetheart?”
“What? I have to go. Bye.”
She quickly logged out. She felt agitated. Next, he would want to know where she lived and try to come over. And then, and then …. But she went back to the chats immediately, anyway.
“You work too hard. You should rest from your writings sometimes,” his messages lay in the chat box.
“Thank you for your concern,” she replied.
“You don’t know how to enjoy life. You’re bored and lonely, and that’s the plain truth. But you must learn to enjoy life too. Life is for enjoyment. Let me call, let me hear your voice, I’m dy-ing to hear it. Let me hear your songs, I’m dying to hear them. How else could I listen to your songs, if I couldn’t call you?”
“No.No.No. Never, you must never ask for more than what I can give you. I don’t have time to talk,” her shot bullet words.
“Make time then. I’m going to die, if you won’t let me,” he was unstoppable.
“Love me all you like but only in your fantasy. We must never meet.”
She wrote back. The click sounds were loud. She logged out. She was sitting in her bed. She slipped solidly under the quilt and covered her head. She panted awhile. This gave her a thrill, this cyber romance as much as it thrilled him. Both, waited eagerly for the next text.
“It’s raining here, today? I love rain,” she wrote.
“Are you taking care of yourself? Or drinking just coffee? Why? Are you on a diet or some-thing?” he replied.
“Why do you care so much?”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“You do realise that we would never meet? And that this has to be a long distance relation-ship, pure and sweet?”
“That is true. You’re right. But I just need to write, and write to you.”
“I understand. But I’ve to go now, bye.”
I paused. These short bursts of texts had an exultant effect on the man. He thought she was playing hard to get. I thought, it was time to end this charade. I thought, she must tell him.
Next morning, she woke up and found the phone right next to her bed. She went straight to WhatsApp. There were no new messages.
She wrote,“how old are you?”
Instantly, he replied. “24, and you?”
She thought for a while, this restless lad, kept shooting the same message at least, 5 times.
“Seriously? Are you kidding me? You don’t look your age at all in your profile? Tell me you joking.”
“No, I’m not, joking. Time you found a girlfriend your age?
“Haha, girlfriend? You search one for me, okay?”
“Oh! I can’t.”
“I guess, this is it then? Goodbye,” she said.
“Girlfriends are mostly bimbos. I’d rather have one true friend, and that would be you.”
“You really are good, you know. Honest. I wondered, why I continued. Now I know why? It was your purity that attracted me.”
“I know,” he said. “But you know what, I also care about you, far too much.”
After that day the texting stopped. She repeatedly went to WhatsApp. But, there were no new texts. She looked at herself in the mirror and the deep wrinkles mortified her as did her wrinkly fingers, her sagging skin, the drooping lips; the ephemera reared its ugly head.
A new text arrived.
“Hello, how’re you?”
“I’m good, and you?”
Then the woman sat back and thought about his parents. What would they say? Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to end this relationship, either. There was a picture on his profile. But who knew if this was his real face? Another Message,
“I feel like talking to you all day?”
“Oh, no you must go to work, not waste time on me.”
She thought she needed to change her role from a potential lover to a mentor, to guide the young the man who is so obviously smitten by her.
“Yes, yes, I know. You’re still the most beautiful woman. You get more and more beautiful with age.”
“But I’m not your cup o’ tea.”
“I love, I love your beautiful mind.”
“You must go to college.”
“I love you.”
“As a friend?”
“Not without her,” Ana screamed. “I’m not leaving without Dolly.”
But the police officer kept pestering. She put Ana in hand-cuffs. Ana yelled at the constable. She pleaded. But the resolute officer didn’t budge. She told Ana that she must leave without her doll. For it was really she, who was in trouble, not her doll. Ana realised that police officer didn’t under-stand that Dolly was her security blanket, now and always. Ever since she was five, now fifteen.
“Trouble?” she screamed. “You say, I’m in trouble? A parasite under the radar until you caught me out?”
“What else would you call yourselves? You, downy mildews of fester? You steal buns from that bakery, there.
“I only steal for hunger.”
“Little snitch! I’ll get you sorted out.”
“Ha! I have been like this since five. I sold flowers on Harlon Street, an orphan, and a phan-tom to most. Those who saw my flowers, never saw me; I was invisible to them, camouflaged like screech owl on a living bark. Then one day, someone noticed me,” she said.
“Who? Who noticed you?” asked the police constable.
“He did. The big man. One evening, it rained. I appeared at his car window with a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums. He rolled down his windows and offered me money. He told me to take the money, and re-sell the wet bunch. Just when the lights changed, I dropped the flowers on his lap, saying that he must take them or else Dolly may get offended. The man drove away.
She looked down at the grooved pavement littered with torn plastic bags. A bed made out of slip-pery bags for a slippery life.
“Is this any way to live? You should be ashamed of your life?” The constable yelled.
“Yeah? You have a better idea? Where were you, when they took me? I had almost become the big men’s playing doll. Where were you when those leeches nearly lay me down in their valley, the dark night’s under-bridge?”
Another rain began as Ana told her story, how the same car came back the next night, and she, a mere child of ten ran towards it to sell some more. But this time, the driver opened the car door, in-stead of a window. He tried to entice her with bundle loads of money. The girl was frightened and ran she away this night.
The end of her flower selling days came the next evening. This time she had Dolly with her. That car was on the street. She stood squeezed in between the traffic jam. Two strong hands grabbed her and pulled her inside.
She fretted, twisted and turned. Ana fell asleep gripping Dolly close to her chest.The car sped along; they reached a mansion. The heavy doors opened, a woman appeared. She came to the car and took Ana inside. They entered a pink bedroom. She scoffed at her, ‘not another word’. Weeks and months passed. She was kept all to herself in this pink bedroom. It was full of dolls. The wom-an dolled her up too, beautiful dresses, and new make-up. But she missed her street.
Then one day, the man summoned her into the living-room she hadn’t seen in many days. But he wasn’t alone. He was with others.
“What’s your name, little girl?” asked another man.
She replied, shyly, “Ana,”
“Lovely name, Ana. Go pack a small bag, I want to take you out.”
A cold shiver ran through her. She was going out with this strange man. Maybe, this could open up an escape route. In her room, she packed a pink suitcase and picked up Dolly. She came back into the living-room. The man took her hand and walked her out of the palace. Ana never saw this palace again, the woman, or the first man. They climbed into another car that the new man drove. In the car, he looked at her and slid his hand under Ana’s skirt. Ana felt odd. She tried to move away from him. By now he had started his car, and the car sped down a highway.
“Where are you taking me?” Ana asked.
“You’ll see. Don’t be afraid.”
Ana began to cry. She screamed so much that the man had to stop his car. He took Ana by her shoulders, and shook them.
“Stop this. Stop this at once. Or else I’ll kill you.”
Ana cowed before his rage. He glowered at her and restarted his car. She looked at her doll and pressed her close to her chest. Her nails dug deep into the doll’s cascading hair. She thought of her flowers, the delicate white, yellow, pink chrysanthemum petals. How they bloomed before her and perished. Her freedom on the street, her kind boss, the owner of the flower shop. Some days, she got paid, some days, she didn’t. Some days she ate, some days she didn’t. It all depended on the sale. But this? Anything was better than this. She fought her miserable thoughts. This new place, she didn’t know. Where was she going to go? The driver stopped the car, yet again. He got out, locking her inside. Ana’s restive mind thought of a way out. She held her Dolly tight and said.
“Dear Dolly, I will take you out of here. I won’t let that bastard touch you.”
The doll looked at her and blinked. She had wings. She rose from her lap like a dot of light. There was a sound of the window locks clicking and popping straight up. The car doors flung open. Bright lights in her eyes, Dolly smiled. Ana was free. She jumped out of the car. She fled. She fled with Dolly and never looked back. The man had gone to buy coffee, she imagined. She pictured him back into the car, looking frantically for Ana. But all he found was her pink suitcase, perched neatly up against the seat’s leather base.
There was banter at the dinner table. People laughed at somebody’s jest. These boisterous gestures of joy distracted me. There were at least twenty people seated here, and the clamour of cutlery and talks rose to high-pitched peals. Then the butler entered with a tray in his beefy hands. On the tray, I saw many bowls of pewter brand. He placed them in front of each person. Most people knew what to do with them. I only had a foray of inkling. I looked away from everyone. I looked at the bowl before me. It held some water and a slice of lemon. I picked up the bowl in my hands and slowly brought it up to my lips. Between my lips, I placed the pewter rim, and drank the water straight off its brim. Dead silence dropped in the room. People who didn’t even steal a glance until now, inclined their heads all towards me. I wasn’t sure what I had done to become the centre of this sudden attention. My perplexity compounded, when I saw what they did. Finger bowl it was. A mistake made by me. They did just what they were meant to do, dip their nimble fingers into them, and rub them elegantly. I looked at my fingers and deemed them to be clean.
I noted that my hostess, Nancy and Mark suppress a smile. There was nothing I could do now or anyone else for that matter. No amount of cover-ups could cover what I had done. Oh! I wanted to cut those fingers off. Pull out the nails. That they were meant to be in the anointed water of the holy grail. I felt like running away. But I couldn’t do that either. I couldn’t make an egress, because something had pinned me to the chair. Dried butterflies encased in collector’s possession, I just sat glumly like a frog on a lily pad, in the wake of a rain. Yes, I sat, sat through it, while they watched me in shock and horror and ridicule me. Inwardly they said, I wasn’t sophisticated. I didn’t know the decorum of the kingdom. I knew exactly, every odd thought that crossed their heads. An anom-aly had occurred, an oddity took place, right before their eyes, at this dinner table tonight. As much as I fancied to not to appear crude, the brute in everyone, the jury was still out. I knew what they thought, but I didn’t know what they would do to me. I, still sitting, becoming, and gradually com-ing to my senses that the socialites would perhaps abandon me, kick me out. How dare I brushed shoulders with the creams and the gleams of these bunch of elites. While they wondered what to do with me, I thought of a ruse. I decided enough was enough, I was going save myself from this hu-miliation at any cost. I wanted to normalise. I still wanted to be in. I allowed some fleeting seconds of these petrified moments. Then I stood up on my two heels. I pushed my chair back hard; it fell resoundingly on the floor, to their surprise. I walked up two steps to the door and asked a man standing here, to fetch me a pen and sheets of white papers rolls.
While my audience floundered, I waited for my ammunition. The pen and the papers arrived, I took them in my stride. I quickly laid out, rolls of papers on the floor and etched a few parallels and dis-jointed poles. I connected the dots and sketched a tall picture in its opulence, not to mention the ambience. It was a sketch of this dinner table, and every one seated here in calm demeanours. The frozen confused expressions and detailed images, replete with lavish foods, this festive occasion. The pewter bowls were there too, the cause of the faux pas but the picture worthy to behold, alt-hough I took a heavy toll.
When my sketching was complete, I held it up in the lights. The disbelief in their eyes, said it all. That I could paint a picture of this magnitude. Some lauded, and others screamed out, ‘say, did you do that on purpose, so you could catch the moment on canvas?’ I took this opportunity and bowed low to ask for forgiveness and to tell purportedly, ‘that it was indeed the intent all along.’ The crowd cheered, they clapped and forgot about this splendid faux pas. I titled the painting, faUx paS, and then gifted it to my host. This painting received a prestigious award. Another version sur-vived in the gallery of modern arts. However, It was never for sale, because it was the painting which had saved my soul, a re-entry ticket into the world unknown.
It wasn’t the elites that I feared, but my defeat, I wouldn’t consider a feat. My painting may have saved me from one faux pas still, many may await in the future repository. After all it was the few odd faux pas that sent the Boleyn sister, off to the gallows to her beheaded misery. The one who spoke her mind, her tongue a shaper bind, in a less forgiving world, faux pas could cause enormous abuse. Transforming Henry’s love into fatal discontent, surely, her faux pas were made at countless social event.
People didn’t know the environment which bred them. Atonements may follow, friendships may mend, to define Cleopatra as not a pretty woman. Or referring to Wales as “part of England,” re-gardlessly histories will not relent. And neither would records bend, just because faux pas are an embarrassment.
Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning, internationally published and critically acclaimed author. She has written Novels, Novella, Short Stories, Creative Nonfiction, Flash Fiction, Academic, Prose Po-etry, Memoirs, Essays and Journalistic Write-Ups. Her works have been podcast, anthologised and translated in German, Greek and Bengali. She has two masters degrees and a bachelor’s (Hon) in English Literature and Linguistics from University of Queensland and Dhaka University. She was born and raised in Bangladesh. At the moment, she lives in Australia.