Two olives for the scarecrow

by Towheed Feroze

lit09THE waiter had made a blunder. Again! Zafar was looking at the glass. In the dimmed blue light, the Martini looked ethereal. Well, semi-ethereal because there was only one olive in it. Floating in desolation…
Zafar, or Zaf as friends would like to call him affectionately, is always particular about the olives in his evening drink.
But today he had decided not to lose his temper. In fact, he seldom got angry.
Nearing fifty, the one lesson he had learnt: let things be unless there’s something gravely wrong causing huge suffering, just overlook the small anomalies of life.
‘Your garlic prawns, sir,’ the thought was disturbed by the waiter.
Zaf sat up, probed the size of the prawns, picked a large one, dipped it in the mint sauce and was about to eat it when the phone stirred in front of him.
The illuminated screen showed the name ‘Cherry Agency’!
A faint smile passed across his lips! He loved cherries, or the heady smell of them.
‘Yep,’ Zafar answered the call.
‘Is today good?’ The voice on the other end was melodious but the hint of professionalism was there too.
‘Will let you know after an hour,’ Zafar hung up.
Cherry Agency is the code name for the girl who he had met three weeks earlier at the end of a conference.
Ananya or Ahona, he couldn’t remember the name but since she smelled of ripe cherries…
The girl was working as an escort.
Accumulating enough money to get married and start a new life with all the creature comforts, she had told him.
He was least bothered.
She was young, attractive and wild. That was all he wanted. Money was not an issue.
But Cherry was not in his mind at the moment.
Zafar was in a reflective mood. Winter had set in, the year was coming to an end and the club bar was empty.
Almost!
He could see the bald head of Joynal Mridha from his couch. Mridha was known as the ’11-peg wonder’ in the club. How could he survive by drinking so much?
Mridha, the only son of his family, had inherited a huge real estate business. Even if the managers carried out some hanky-panky with the accounts, Mridha wasn’t worried. He was content. Didn’t work a day in his life! Never liked women either! Some gossip flared up recently about his sexual orientation. At last week’s weekly kebab evening, someone insinuated that Mridha had a male lover, living in Paris.
Zafar had always liked him — ‘not poking nose in the affairs of others’ type of fellow.
Anyway, taking a large sip from the glass, Zafar allowed his mind to drift back in time, to the bachelors’ mess in Nayatola of Dhaka.
***
THE year was 1983!
We want khichuri today with chicken bhoona, the decision was unanimous. Afzal had just been paid first month’s salary from the private tuition.
But that was not all! The girl student had also hinted that she found Afzal just as handsome as the drama actor Raisul Islam Asad.
Afzal was in seventh heaven! Money plus the prospect of a relationship! Maybe he should tell the girl that she had eyes that could bewitch.
Andrew, the bass guitarist for the band ‘Black Butterflies’, had brought out his guitar. Porosh, the stringer for Sangbad, had also composed a poem.
When Zafar walked in, the mood was jovial. Rokshana, the young maid of the mess, was in top spirit too. If there was a feast, she could also take home the leftover for her daughter.
‘Right, let’s chip in,’ said Andrew, taking out a Tk 5 note from under his pillow.
‘We pay for the khichuri, Afzal buys the chicken,’ Sudhir Babu said solemnly.
Everyone listened to Sudhir Da, once a professional astrologer, now a retired man, living on the income that came from his leased land in Faridpur. Sudhir Da had stopped professional palm reading when one of his predictions for a young man, wanting to start a garment business, went horribly wrong.
Sudhir Da had said garment would not be a profitable business whereas the client, a young man just out of university, was convinced that textile industry would pick up in Bangladesh.
The man went against Sudhir Da’s suggestions, started a small factory and within a year was seeing profit.
He came a few months later in a new motor bike just to prove his point.
After listening to his snide remarks, Sudhir Da quietly removed his magnifying glass from the table. But in the mess, his astrological prowess was never questioned by the others because without this man and his raunchy jokes, life would be unbearable.
Sudhir Da had a special proclivity to open his box of lewd jokes when Rokhsana was around.
‘Talk later, give me the money to buy the chicken,’ the maid’s voice, laced with mock admonition, interrupted the merrymaking.
Zafar collected the donations, plus the Tk 50 note from Afzal and handed over to the girl.
That night, there was no dearth of optimism in that small mess. Afzal could not shut his eyes as he kept thinking about his student, Andrew had a deep sleep after the feast, Sudhir Da brought out his magnifying glass once more and Zafar chalked out the plan for his tryst the next day.
***
THE waiter had replaced his empty glass with a new drink. Hell, was there a shortage of olives in the club?
Let it be, a voice from within said.
Sometimes, he thought about the life with all the others in the mess. They were lost! Well, were lost until today!
At the real estate company where he had gone that morning to buy a flat, Zafar met Afzal.
Hadn’t recognised him at first, obviously.
Afzal was the employed manager of the company. Living in Dhaka but not economically comfortable by any means!
Zafar had to put him at ease several times because Afzal insisted on addressing him as ‘sir’.
The thirty-something female flat coordinator was giving Afzal reverential looks when Zafar casually said, ‘Why the hell are you using the word sir, when we are friends from life at the Nayatola mess?’
Later, seated in Zafar’s BMW, Afzal kept on harping about his middle-class life.
‘Come over one day for dinner,’ Afzal said, ‘and we will talk of old times and forgotten fun.’
The word ‘fun’ brought back a series of dark memories.
‘Did you pay for Rokhsana’s abortion?’ Zafar asked casually. Afzal stiffened a bit!
‘Come on, it was a long time ago and I am not going to spill the beans to your family,’ Zafar assured with a laugh.
Afzal didn’t speak!
So Zafar went on:
‘I know Rokhsana was providing the “extra” service to all of us but unlike me, some of you either fell in love with her or failed to take precautions.’
‘No, I did…’ Afzal tried to interject but Zafar stopped him.
‘No worries…it’s from another time, another life.’
‘Let’s change the topic, whatever happened to Andrew and Sudhir Da? ‘
Relaxing a little, Afzal said, ‘Andrew went on to form a musical band which dissolved about six years ago and then, managing a US visa, left Bangladesh for good.’
‘Sudhir Da on the other hand…’ Afzal could not finish the sentence.
The phone started to buzz!
It was Cherry calling.
‘Call me after half an hour,’ Zafar said and hung up.
I will get off here, said Afzal as the car slowed near the Kataban intersection.
‘Got a nice little flat in Central Road! Please come over this Friday for dinner,’ Afzal’s voice sounded courteous but not genuine.
‘Here’s my card,’ Zafar said with a smile.
‘Let’s keep in touch.’
***
BACH’S violin concerti, played in the club’s music system, brought back Zafar to the present.
After three Martinis, the head felt light.
He finished the prawns, signed the bill and rose to leave.
The phone rang again!
Cherry, he thought and found the name on the screen.
‘Come to the flat tomorrow, after 3,’ He said.
‘What do you want me to wear?’ Asked the voice from the other side.
‘Hmmm, let me think and text you.’ These modern-day escorts are really smart, Zafar hung up and thought. No need to seek pleasure in foreign shores.
Cherry takes 200 dollars for every date.
Not a small amount by any means, but Zafar can afford it!
He can afford to pay more, much more…
Suddenly, he remembered that Afzal did not tell him about Sudhir Da.
He was in his early forties then and, if alive, will be more than seventy.
The gate was opened by the guard. Zafar parked the car and took the stairs.
The guard was a curious guy but he never asked about the guests who came to his flat and was generally reverential to the women who came for short or long stays.
For his silence, he got more than his salary from Zafar.
Let everyone be happy!
Won’t Skype with his daughter tonight! She was busy attending a seminar in a college in Boston.
Next morning, Zafar woke up with a headache!
He was in no mood for breakfast. Pressing the bell, he asked the maid to get him a cup of strong tea.
After a few splashes of cold water on his face, he felt better and ran over the day’s programmes in his mind.
Need to stop by at the Nilkhet second hand market, must go for a jog and have a relaxing session with Cherry.
He liked the plans. The headache started to disappear.
Maybe breakfast wouldn’t be bad after all!
Weekday late December afternoon at the Nilkhet book market was slow and tranquil. Zafar loved to come here because the booksellers were a link to his past.
They knew him, he knew them; they still demanded ridiculous prices and Zafar loved to bargain to bring the rates down.
Quite a few had received generous largesse from him from time to time for the marriage of their son or daughter, or to wriggle out of some legal entanglement.
Once he met a very interesting lady here who shared his passion for poems. After a few dinners and long drives, she ended up in his flat.
Problem was she was addicted to the drug Yaba. Zafar was all for drink and romance; Marijuana was not a problem either but he was uncomfortable with the pink tablet which many of his friends were referring to as the pagla chakki.
That was the first and last date with her. She had tried calling but was barred in the incoming call list.
Strolling past the rows of books placed on large wooden platforms, the cover of a book called ‘Sagortire’ caught Zafar’s eye.
The blue cover of the book brought back waves of memories. No, it was not a great piece of work; in fact, a translated fiction from the original in Russian and printed possibly by the Soviet ministry of culture in glossy paper with the sole view of spreading the ideology of socialism, intertwined with the story and the characters.
Back in the early 1980s, these books flooded the market and at one point Zafar, working as a part-time bookseller in a shop in Banglabazar, had to sell them.
Zafar picked up the copy and looking intently at the cover, tried to remember the Banglabazar days — hot singaras in the morning, lunch at Beauty Boarding, walking to the mess with a packet of nuts and hanging around the Central Shaheed Minar on winter evenings.
‘How much is this?’ He asked the seller who, wrapped in a shawl, was sipping tea.
Looking up and making an effort he replied, ‘Eighty.’
It was quite normal to retire in a cocoon on winter mornings, Zafar thought.
Today, he did not feel like haggling, so paid the money and started to walk.
Balaka Cinema was just a few hundred yards away. The DVD sellers on the side tried to attract his attention pointing to movie covers with explicit photos.
Looking ahead, he saw a known face among those entering the cinema hall premises.
It was Afzal, accompanied by a young girl.
So, he was still at it, was Zafar’s first thought.
Or maybe not, because the girl looked reserved and there was a sort of veneration in her body language.
Zafar stood behind the pillar of the over-bridge that gave him sufficient cover.
He was intrigued.
Looking up at the cinema hall hoarding, he saw the poster of an art film made by one of those geeky new-age filmmakers who regularly came on TV and loved to baffle the audience with too much technical film jargon.
Afzal was buying tickets.
Various thoughts ran within his head.
Should he go and talk or maybe it was better to remain quiet.
Zafar turned around and walked the other way.
Life was so fascinating he thought and decided to buy some wine on his way back.
The club did not have the Chilean red he was so fond of and the waiter insisted he try the new addition, an Indian red from a company called Grover.
‘Sir, please try this, it’ the rage of the moment,’ the waiter seemed excited.
The wine pairs well with the spicy dishes, the man went on.
What the hell, let’s give it a go, he thought and took two bottles.
It was already one in the afternoon and Zafar decided to head home.
The phone vibrated twice for a message alert.
He took it out and read it…
Can I spend the night?
It was Cherry…
Only if you give me the girlfriend experience and wear red, Zafar texted back.
The road was fairly jam-free and he reached home in under an hour.
After parking the car, he stopped to speak to the guard.
‘I am expecting a guest later, see the person comes up without facing any questions from anyone,’ Zafar said and pressed two Tk 500 notes in his hand.
The smile, for a second, brightened the winter afternoon.
Zafar smiled back, winked and went upstairs.
He has some time to go for a jog around the area and a steam bath.
The run and the bath left him feeling exhilarated. It was already after three…
The phone buzzed once more. I am nearby…
He called the guard downstairs who knew exactly what had to be done.
Standing in the veranda, looking at the late afternoon stillness creating a haunting aura on the Gulshan Lake, Zafar took deep breaths.
‘What shall I make for dinner?’ the maid asked.
Turning around he said: mutton roast with potatoes, thick lentils and paratha!
With an acknowledging nod she walked away. It’s always good to have people who understand you, Zafar thought.
The bell rang. Cherry had been brought by the guard.
He walked to the drawing room to greet her. She usually came in a burqa to avoid any unnecessary attention.
The guard gave a salaam and went away. Cherry took off the burqa.
She looked radiant in red. The smile of mischief was on her lips.
‘How did you manage to get permission for the night?’ Zafar asked.
‘Wasn’t a problem…said will be staying the night with a friend at her college dorm,’ replied Cherry.
‘Super, let’s have some wine…’
The drink had a feel of soft butter…was oaked for a long time, Zafar thought. He liked the aftertaste…berries and chocolate.
Cherry took a deep sip and looked content. No point talking to her about the finer things of wine drinking. She wanted to get high, that’s the bottom line. It didn’t matter if she couldn’t distinguish between Merlot from Siraj. In her work, she was top notch. Uninhibited, daring and always willing to experiment!
Late that evening, Zafar came and stood at the veranda once more. He loved the view, it soothed him.
Cherry was taking a nap. The maid had gone. The wine was great but he needed a Martini.
Hundreds of thoughts passed through his mind… life is truly strange, especially for those who are born under the numerological number 4, the prophetic line of Sudhir Da kept on hammering his head.
Whatever happened to the guy, he thought.
There was a soft rustling sound behind him. The smell of Cherry filled the area.
Without turning back, he stretched his hand and a bundle of intoxicating softness filled his grasp.
‘Careful, I got your drink,’ she said.
Cherry handed over the glass.
Wow, it had two olives in it.
Zafar was surprised.
‘How did you know I like two olives in my Martini?’
Cherry came close and said: ‘Rokhsana told me…’
Oh yes, Rokhsana, thought Zafar, the trusted maid who had seen life rise from debilitating struggle to amazing affluence by staying with him. Or maybe she was compelled by conscience to remain with him…whatever the case, the result hasn’t been bad for her at all. At least, that was what she told him from time to time…
Afzal got her pregnant and fled. The maid was distraught.
‘Can’t go back to the husband unless I get an abortion,’ she had come to Zafar one rainy afternoon back in 1984. Zafar had sex with her too but was always cautious.
It was difficult to find a proper place. Clinics had not become popular in Dhaka as yet and the only hope was the inexperienced nurse who performed abortions in her home.
Zafar took her to a dimly-lit room in Zigatola, had the work done and employed her as his maid.
In time, he bought her a piece of land, helping her to get the daughter married off.
Zafar took a long sip, took out an olive and ate it.
‘Want to come inside?’ The suggestion in that husky tone was too much to resist… ‘You did want the girlfriend experience…’
He shut the veranda door and headed to the bedroom with Cherry stuck to him…
For a second, a scene from the afternoon flashed in his mind…Cherry modestly dressed and proper with Afzal entering the cinema hall.
No, he wouldn’t tell her anything; it was not relevant. He was happy. Nor did he want to know anything.
Two olives followed by a night of lust! Life couldn’t be better.
That night the guard, high on marijuana bought with the extra cash he had earned that day, dreamt of laughing scarecrows dancing by a funeral pyre.

One Comment

  1. Ibrahim H Rizwan says:

    Awesome!!

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