Alisha’s lovers

by Saleha Chowdhury

eid1Solaiman’s poem is on the fax machine again! Alisha has just got back from school. She notices it immediately. A poem of love from him — Hey you answer me, I love you from here to eternity. Please, do not go mad! It is just a poem. Alisha takes the poem out of that fax machine immediately. Then she tears it off into pieces and throws it in the bin.
Alisha has lost her husband three and a half years ago. She lives alone with her ten-year-old son Pial. She is thirty-one with a curvaceous figure and bright, refreshing smile. Her face is lovely too. After her husband’s death, she did not do any job for a year; then one day, she decided to take up a job. Probably she was feeling rather bored with her life. The man who wanted her for 24 hours a day was not there any more. That man was Abu Karim, her beloved husband. So in an empty sort of house, she was looking for something to keep herself busy. She got a job as a classroom assistant in a primary school. He saw that advertisement on a billboard in a supermarket, which read — urgently needed classroom assistants with attractive salary and future prospects. The interview was held. And she got the job.
Alisha has a friend. She met her friend Sujit in a conference. He was one of the three teachers who were talking and discussing classroom assistantship. Sujit Roy from Kolkata is a quiet sort of a person who loves books and speaks rarely. He has strict moral principles and values. His character is flawless. After living in Great Britain for nearly 11 years, working with lots of beautiful, alluring, voluptuous, coquettish and adventurous young women, he never tries to make any relationship with anyone. Only now and again Alisha could hear Sujit’s business-like tap on her front door. Has he ever dreamt to share a bed with anybody? Or has he done that? Alisha does not know. And probably his other few friends also do not know. He is a secretive person who does not talk much about his own life. But he talks to Alisha heartily on the phone, and sometimes sends her text messages and e-mails. That is about it all really. Alisha likes him and he likes her, too. They never talk about any intimate issues of human life with flesh and blood and that is how it is. Both of them are thirty-one. Sujit was born in October and Alisha in November.
After coming from work Alisha is thinking about his headteacher’s compliments — You know, Alisha; you can make a great teacher one day. I will recommend you. You just do your post-graduation and move from there. You can do this after doing this job for two years and then taking a one-year-leave of absence without pay. Can you afford that? I will let you know.
Please let me think it over.
Now she is thinking about that seriously. Yes, she has savings. Her husband left her some money and the two-bedroom house they live in. She got some money from his life insurance, too. Now she is thinking about what she will do. Shall I do that post-graduate or not?
The phone begins to ring. She is sitting in the dark, forgets to put on the light. Pial is doing his usual homework in his own room. She got up to answer the phone — Is that you, Sujit?
Yes! How do you guess?
Telepathy! Alisha giggles a little.
Do you know, Alisha, tomorrow’s weather will be horrible? Gale, blizzard and heavy snowing.
Yes, I have seen this forecast on the television, Sujit. But actually I wanted to talk to you about something else.
What is that something, Alisha?
My headteacher Peter Mortimar told me about doing post-graduation after which I can be a class-teacher straightway. What do you think about that?
Very good, Alisha! A golden opportunity. What are you thinking about now?
I know, Sujit, teaching is a very demanding job. Just to think that I will be a teacher for the rest of my life makes me tired.
Sujit laughs a little — Is that so? What else do you want to do then?
Not sure.
Sujit is thinking for a little — Shall I ask her? Does she like to be a lady of leisure, and get someone to share her loneliness? But, as usual, he just says — for a glamorous girl like you finding another job won’t be too hard if teaching makes you tired.
But my son Pial is only ten. It is good that we get school holiday. It is possible only if I work at a school.
Then, you work at a school till Pial leaves school. After that —
I will be an old lady by then!
Both of them giggle a little.
Then they talk about tomorrow’s weather. He asks her not to venture to school tomorrow as weather would be very treacherous.
I will think about it. And thanks for your concern, Sujit.
Not at all, dear Alisha.
Alisha looks for Pial. He is making an origami boat attentively. — Where did you get this origami book, Pial?
Solaiman uncle gave me this book yesterday, ma.
Which uncle, Pial?
Solaiman uncle. You know him, ma. He has a shop there. Pial is pointing his finger towards Solaiman’s shop.
Alisha is quiet for a little while and thinking — first, that Solaiman uses fax machine, then phone, sends poems, and now he is using Pial to get close to her. She brushes Pial’s hair with her long slender fingers and asks — what else that Solaiman uncle of yours has given you?
Chocolates and crisps.
I asked you not to take anything from anybody, Pial.
But he is not anybody, ma. He is Solaiman uncle.
Look, Pial, he is not your own uncle. Your own uncle lives in Boston. Soon, we will visit him.
Ma, he is really nice.
Alisha does not know what to say after that. Pial is doing something good. First, he has made a box, then a frog and now a boat. He is doing these all just following the book without anybody’s help. He is mastering origami — Japanese art of paper folding. And enjoying it immensely. All those paper folding works look really cute and lovely. — Ma! look what I have made. It’s a nice boat, isn’t it, ma? I know how to make three types of origami boats. Pial is excited.
You are doing it all by yourself or he taught you how to do it?
He just gave me the book and some origami papers. I am following the instructions to make it, step 1 to 20. Sometimes more steps than that.
My intelligent Pial, patting a little, Alisha says that.
But when Alisha meets him in that shop her outburst is not very calm. She speaks rather angrily — Please, do not shower my son with your expensive presents, Solaiman Khan.
I haven’t given your son a car. Have I? If I wish I can do that too. But it was just a book, wasn’t it?
Still —
Look what you have taken me for? An illiterate shopkeeper. I had been to the university, did graduation, then, decided to do something independently. Now here I am. No boss to boss me round, no shitty timetable to keep, I am happy with what I do. And I am not short of a few bobs, okay, Miss Alisha.
Why do you send me all those poems, Solaiman Khan?
Only poems, not blue films. Why? Don’t you like poems?
But you are wasting your time.
I know it, but one day you will change your mind. I am sure about it.
Are you? Alisha does not feel like talking to him any more. Some customers are looking suspiciously at both of them speaking in Urdu-Hindi.
Alisha, I believe you have a heart. I’m trying my best to get close to that. Okay?
You are not a teenager.
Sending poems is only a teenager’s job! You are a teacher and a woman, too.
Go to hell. Alisha leaves the shop angrily.
But she does not like to discuss this with anyone. They might think it is showing off to say that Solaiman Khan is mad about me. The handsome Solaiman with his money not always grows on trees. But Alisha feels this is not right.
At night with a table lamp by her bedside, she reads to sleep. That night Alisha is reading a book by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Her favourite writer. The title of one story for some reason makes her giggle. It is called ‘Monishar Dui Premik’ — two lovers of Monisha. She believes none of them is her lover. Still she giggles. Probably, Monisha and Alisha’s names have some similarity. That night she is sleeping with a tiny smile on her lips. But in the middle of the night she has just woken up hearing the noise of the gale outside, which is horrendous, lightning and thunderstorm accompanying it. Blazing lightning with roars, the trees making a scary noise, and snowing heavily, all are going on with a menace. She rushes to Pial’s room. Pial is up, too. As soon as he sees his mother, Pial embraces her tightly.
Pial, don’t to worry now. I’m here, my son.
Ma, it looks like a giant out there, stomping loudly outside in the garden. The lightning is terrible too. And the thunder — he puts his palm on his ears.
Yes, you are right, Pial. I think the storm is trying its best to scare everyone. Then, she is looking out of the window. In the lightning, she could see the garden in a horrible mess, the rain tree has been uprooted and it seems as if the giant has fallen flat on the ground. And every bit of outside is covered with heavy snow. She rushes downstairs, tries to open the door, but piles of snow outside has closed the door so tightly that she finds it is hard to open the door. Not possible to open it until heaps of snow melt a little. Now she understands what Sujit has meant by mentioning ‘bad weather.’ Climbing upstairs again she sits next to Pial. Pial, we are not going to school tomorrow. We will stay at home. The weather is dreadful.
That pleases Pial as he has learnt to make some origami articles but has not yet finished the book yet — I will finish the whole book tomorrow. Then, he tries to go back to sleep again. It seems something is bothering Pial. Alisha affectionately asks — everything okay with you, Pial?
He opens his eyes and sort of whispers — ma, you always help me not to get scared. But there is no one for you, who can give you courage.
I am all right. Why do you say that? I have you with me, my brave son Pial.
But I haven’t got a daddy, ma. Daddy could make us feel good. Couldn’t it, ma?
Alisha takes Abu Karim’s picture from the shelf and puts it on his bedside table. Look! Here is your daddy. You need to know, Pial, that he is always watching us. Pial faces the wall and speaks coldly — but it is just a picture, ma.
Abu Karim looks bright and bubbly in the picture, a tennis racket in his hand beaming with a smile.
Alisha enters her own room. Has this Solaiman Khan said something to Pial? Why all of a sudden Pial is talking like that. But she does not like to discuss anything on that subject with Pial. I will handle it, she murmurs.
Next morning, Alisha got a phone call from Sujit Roy.
How are you keeping, Miss?
We are keeping all right, Sujit.
Tried to go to school as you are a dedicated worker? he asks.
Tried but failed. But tomorrow I have to go. We have a very important meeting tomorrow. It is about the new syllabus.
Take it easy, Alisha. If weather stays like this your headteacher will have to cancel the meeting.
If he cancels it, he would phone me to tell that. I know Peter well. He does not like any suspense.
Have you got everything that can keep you two really warm?
Yes. Please, do not worry about this. We are doing fine.
I might come down to drop some foods.
Please, do not drive on this snowy road. It’s slippery and unpredictable.
Sujit does not say anything. Alisha somehow knows he will try to come to see them.
Alisha and Pial read books together. Making origami together. Then Pial begins to watch television and Alisha begins to do her own things like tidying up and organising all her files and folders.
Good lord! In this weather Solaiman Khan’s poems again, hanging down from the fax machine. This time the composer is Omar Khayyam. Two rubaiyat to read. Ah! make the most of what we yet may spend/ Before we two into the dust descend/ Dust into dust and under dust to lie/Sans wine, sans song, sans singers, and sans end. The next one is — Ah, fill the cup — what boots it to repeat/ How time is sleeping underneath our feet/ Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday/ Why fret about them if Today be sweet.
Underneath the note he has written — They are only Khayyam’s, madam. Please, stay calm. Hope you two are keeping warm. I know you haven’t gone to school today. Alisha has decided to stay calm. This anger and fretting make him do more silly gestures. But are they all silly? She keeps this matter in her own hand as usual and knows that something about this is not quite right.
In the afternoon, snowing has stopped and like a poached egg a timid sun tries to peep out through the pile of snow-soaked cloud. I will go to school tomorrow but Pial will be staying at home. I will call Usha to babysit Pial. She is talking to herself. (Usha occasionally does babysitting for Pial). She is a student who needs money.
That evening a car stops slowly in front of Alisha’s front door. It is Sujit Roy, who has come to deliver some food to Alisha. A business-like tap on the door and Alisha knows who it might be. She opens the door and sees the car standing in the knee-deep ice and Sujit is just in front of her.
How did you drive in this weather? It is dangerous, you know. Your car might have skidded.
It hasn’t, you can see that. Now I have to go back. Bit of shopping for you.
Thanks, Sujit. Please, come in and have a cup of tea.
No time for that. I have to go back. See! It is getting really dark and dingy. I had better go. After saying that, he steps forward a little and looks deep into Alisha’s huge dark eyes, touching her shoulder a little and then suddenly steps back. Alisha is quiet, touch of smile on her lips. Then, Sujit stops a little, a whispering voice utters — do not worry a bit. I’ll be always around.
Then in the car’s headlight Alisha again notices a dangerous road and a man who has come to say — I will always be around. A man with books to keep him company.
Another parcel arrives that evening. It is from Solaiman Khan. His shop assistant has brought it. Peas, soups, eggs, biscuits, etc. And a note with the parcel says — Please, take these. They are only gifts. SK.
Alisha inquires about the price. But the young man from Solaiman’s shop says he does not know anything about that. I cannot take money. For that you have to talk to Mr Khan. Alisha then decides that she has to take the matter in her own hands. But now she does not like to do any drama or farce.
Next day, Usha has come to look after Pial for all day. And Alisha with heavy coat, heavy boots, and big school bag is heading for school. When the meeting finishes, it is dark, and snow has begun to fall down again. She walks to the rail station, tiptoeing. No train has been there for a long time, most of their schedules have been cancelled. At last, one train arrives and Alisha jumps off to get in. Slowly the train arrives at Bexlyheath. From Bexlyheath to his house there is a bus. If she walks from the station to reach home, it takes about 20 minutes. Thinking of going home walking along a snowy road in this terrible weather makes her depressed. The bus she usually takes is Bus 33, because the bus stops at a place close to her house, and takes about two minutes to get home. But Bus 33 is nowhere to be found. What else can she do other than walking? No taxi is there to take home. The taxi stand is empty too as if every taxi driver is taking a day off in this wretched weather.
As soon as she thinks of going home walking, a car slowly stops near her, a door opened, and an unfamiliar face speaks — Get in, Miss.
Who are you? Alisha asks a bit suspiciously. So many things happen these days, raping, abducting, murdering, thieving. So she has to know who this man is.
I am Ricardo Reis living next road to yours. Your son Pial knows me well, because I was teaching him how to ride a bike. You got your son a red bike, isn’t it? Now he paddles beautifully. Will you still be standing there or take this lift? It is up to you, Miss.
Alisha enters the car. Warm seat and warmth inside make her feel good.
We are almost neighbours. You live at Daffodil Street and me at Lotus close. I see you every day. You go to school, then come back. From my window your bus-stop is very close. I see it clearly.
Pial knows you?
Of course, he is a bright boy. Just go home and tell your son that Ricardo Reis has given you a lift. He will be happy to know it.
They are sitting side by side. He is driving carefully in this snowy road. The music player is on. Is it Mastroanni? Alisha tries hard to know whose music it is but cannot fathom out. But it sounds really soothing.
I am trying my best to avoid skidding, hope you do not mind me going slowly.
It is okay.
Thanks. You see in a fortnight I am going to Spain. It is not a good idea that I meet with some kind of accident and that stops my journey to Spain.
It’s your winter holiday, I guess.
No, I am going there forever. I am going to live there. This country and weather are not for me. I love a bit of a warmer place. I have sold my house and am ready to leave.
All your family members are going with you?
I don’t have a family yet. My parents died about 4/5 years ago. I had a job. But have given them my resignation letter, and have sold the house. Now all ready to go.
No family?
Not yet. May be, one day my Miss Right would come and pay me a visit. He smiles looking at her. His gaze is long and deep.
What would you do in there, Ricardo?
I have bought a small two-bedroom house there. It has a lovely vineyard and a lovely vinery. So I am looking forward to producing wine and staying there. One day a wine merchant may please everyone with his own designer wine. He smiles again. And Alisha is gazing at his smile, too. Individual wineries sometimes do wonders. Sometimes they produce really special and expensive wines like Vinsanto or good Chardonnay. No one has to go to Santorini or France to produce that. If we change the soil and do some crossbreeding then — he stops and asks — do you know anything about wine?
Not really.
You can learn.
How?
By googling. You will get lots of information about at least hundred best wines including the most expensive wine in the world and others. It’s interesting. Do you know which wine is the most expensive in the world?
No.
Henri Jayer Richbourg Grand cru from France. One bottle is sixteen thousand dollars and ninety-three pence.
Good gracious me! Is it true?
Yes, it is.
Then she asks — Do you drink a lot?
Almost a teetotaller. Producing wine will be my business. I won’t be producing it to drink, you know. For that there are lots of people in the market. But, you know, once a saint said something while drinking wine though I don’t know which brand it was, it could be Chardonnay — oh, my dear God! Looks like I am drinking the glowing light of the stars! Then Ricardo laughs a little with Alisha.
Occasionally, I drink. Otherwise, I call myself a teetotaller. He explains the word.
The car is going slowly and the two of them have been talking for nearly an hour. He talks in a soft tone, very gently, utters each word carefully — I have seen you and thought — she is really smart and independent. And she has got a lovely carefree outlook. Your son is like you, too. Independent type. Tried to learn to ride the bike all by himself then one day he realised that he could do it with a bit of help. So I helped him. Now he is very confident. I like his confidence. Then he changes his subject and says — I am driving slowly to avoid a crash. Is it all right with you? Is he driving the car slowly to avoid a car crash or is he enjoying Alisha’s company? It is hard to tell. Alisha says — It’s okay with me you can drive slowly. And he is doing just that. It seems Alisha does not mind it at all if they reach home in the middle of the night. He continues with his talking — If I get bored to do that wine thing then the whole world would be mine. I don’t mind travelling, or doing something else like — car mending, road making, bridge fixing, culvert designing, cooking, reading, etc. They say I am a Jack of all trades but master of none. Let’s see if I can master
that winery business. I like to take it as a challenge.
Do you read books? Alisha asks suddenly.
I do. But just reading is not me. I love life. I like to do other things as well. When I read I choose classics. I am fond of classics.
Are you? I like classics, too.
He smiles with his heart out, very refreshing and charming smile. Alisha’s gaze is long and deep now.
His car stops in front of his house. Please, come in. I have got piles of classics, I won’t be able to take all of those with me. You choose and take some.
Alisha follows him. A cosy, warm house. It seems the house is always at thirty degrees Celsius. There is a log fire waiting to be ignited. The central heating has come on due time. All the radiators are giving this cosy little house enough warmth to make it comfortable. Alisha is looking at the log fire, which would be glowing in a minute.
She has stayed there not for five or ten minutes but for three or four hours.
Sujit Roy has learnt one day Alisha is not there any more. She has vanished somewhere in this planet with no forwarding address. Poor Solaiman also has understood all his poems and gifts are not good enough to get close to someone’s heart.
A house which is very close to the sea and a school for Alisha and Pial, and about fifteen minutes’ drive away from a vineyard and a vinery. Alisha will be teaching English to the Spanish kids. And Pial is too happy living between the sea and the vineyard with a daddy full of life and love.
Alisha has written in her diary — What else could I do? His smile made my heart give in and his hand within mine felt like the warmest thing in the world, even warmer than the fire. How can a woman within me resist that? 

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