Fiction

The Venice Return

By: Prashil Kumar

It was a nightmare for Emily. Musaffar refused to let her go overseas to work. The job offer had come all the way from Venice, Italy. And although her contract would only last ten months, Emily would earn thrice as much as she did in an entire year at her present job. She had told Musaffar all these over the phone, fifteen minutes ago, as soon as she had received the email, but he had disapproved.

He said that he didn’t see any “good” reason for her to go, and that he wasn’t happy to part ways with her for even a day, leave alone ten months. Because he was at the Mosque on Aroha St, and his afternoon prayer time neared, he had cut their conversation short, saying he would talk later. 

Emily pictured Musaffar bowing his head all the way to the ground, while the speakers on the heightened walls echoed : “Allah…” He never missed his prayers, especially the one on Fridays, and fasted, without food and water for an entire month, once every year. She admired him for his commitment, but what she admired more was his thick black wavy hair which tended to glisten darker in the sunlight, building the impression that he had walked out of a hair saloon all dyed and groomed. She fondly caressed it when they made love, stroking it backward, adoring how a tress or two kept falling back onto his forehead.

“And he won’t let me go.” Emily sat at her desk and jammed her black Sharpie on a coffee mug tight with assorted vivid markers and pencils, wondering what to do.

“I got to knock sense into him,” Emily decided, as she thrusted the Sharpie back into the coffee mug, Her force jostled it hard; fortunately she grabbed it just in time before it crashed onto the floor. She logged out her account, clicking onto the dropdown by “Emily Blows,” listed in size five font, among several hundred other Bronson Bros Architecture employees; a web layout she found appalling due to its mundane style.

“And Musaffar wants me to stick in here, miss opportunities in Venice. Who in this world does that?” She thought, gathering loose papers strewn across her desk, half finished designs, a series of parallel lines and arcs coordinating alongside each other, and stuffed them into a manilla folder. For the very first time, her own illustrations appeared to her, like vague random shapes on pieces of paper, meaningless and severed apart.

Emily calculated, doing the math in her mind, that it would take a fifteen minute drive to reach Musaffar, given that it was two on a Friday afternoon. A mild congestion halted Emily at the roundabout leading outside the city centre where mundane town houses, all identical in size and shape and colour, creeped up from both sides. “Ugh.” Emily gripped the steering wheel, and accelerated hard at a near chance, whizzing past a red car.

She saw Musaffar in a white head-dress, walking down the steps leading out of the foyer, in front of a Mosque pillars, gigantic ice-cream cones, and domes, soft scooped ice-cream. He halted as soon as he noticed her, and stood by a notice, planted into the tiled walkway, written in some foreign Middle Eastern language, a series of acrs joined together with full stops here and there. “What does it say?” Emily asked Musaffar.

“It says…” Musaffar drew himself close to her, and looked her into her eye, brooding. “It says that ten months is a very long time. It is equal to innumerable moments, and an entire lifetime buried in those moments.”

The next afternoon, upon returning from work, Emily bought a twenty by twenty inch oil painting. Musaffar offered to hold it while she scanned the lounge walls, searching for its perfect spot, but Emily refused. She kept it to herself, close to her chest as if it were a newborn.

She found the first suitable space by the curtain, behind the sofa. But because the curtain were the landlord’s choice, a plain “yuck vanilla,” Emily decided the art’s aura could suffer. The next option was close to the kitchen, “too close actually”, Emily thought, because on occasions Musaffar’s lentil curry got a bit too strong and she didn’t want her precious reeking of spice. Eventually, she settled for the area adjacent to the smart TV. From there, she reasoned, not only would it be visible from all four corners of the lounge, but it would also be the very first thing which caught Musaffar’s eye whenever he walked in through the front door. 

As she latched the art onto a plastic hook already drilled in, by the previous tenants, she told Musaffar, who stood quietly watching her with his hands folded, that the painting was on Egyptian canvas, an epitome of class and quality. “This,” she said, tiptoed, inspecting it from all the angles, “This deserves a better haven than this one bedroom flat.”

Musaffar never replied. When Emily glanced at him, he nodded. She didn’t know what exactly that meant, either he had agreed with her statement or ascertained that he had heard her. She guessed the latter and walked over to him, tugged onto his arm, asking him to convey all the things he saw in the illustration. She encouraged him to fuel his desires, think about wanting more than what they already had, to imagine a tomorrow with a better living.

Musaffar seemed to struggle; he couldn’t relate. “It’s just an expensive drawing. How much did it cost you?”

The response shocked Emily — for the first time in two years of their relationship, she felt that her man knew nothing about ambition and aspirations.

The ocean was turquoise and the hills emerald. The centre had a two storey chalet, a warm olive in colour, and a patio, complete with a hammock fastened to two Kauri trees, glistening magenta by the sun’s last rays in the far horizon.

Emily cupped his face, and looked right at him. His face was model-like, sharply cut, almost ninety degree at the chin and cheek; his nose as sharp and attractive, dropping like a beak from his forehead, separated his serene hazel eyes, beneath exotic bushy brows. She reckoned that the Aussie guy she had dated had similar features, except for he changed jobs each season, and a year later changed countries, flew to UK; the last she heard he had settled down in Malawi to teach children English.

“Don’t you love what you see?” Emily asked Musaffar.

“It’s not too bad.” Musaffar replied, solemn.

“Imagine our very first home facing the Wellington Harbour.”

Emily gave Musaffar a quick kiss on his lips and explained that her current job and his Ubering could never see them a home anywhere, let alone vicinities of Wellington Harbour. Musaffar nodded, brooding.

Emily continued, “Six months in Venice will see the deposit through. I’ve talked to Rachel at work — she knows a mortgage broker who sorted her finances out when she bought her home, and will sort ours too.”

As Emily spoke, she sensed her tone like that of her coordinator Dave’s, when her workmates were, by the deadline, still writing building material reports and putting in final touches on A2 papers to distinguish between drinking-water and waste-water pipes. She worried that she ought to wind down a bit, but when Musaffar kissed her head, she knew otherwise.

His lips felt moist; and his thumb gentle when he ran it through her hair-part. He told her that brides in his village customarily adorned a hair chain, and he wished to see her, his bride, wear one too on their wedding day. “It is auspicious.” He added, and took Emily’s wrists in his hand, promising to gift her gold bangles upon her return, because he suddenly felt, he said, that both her hands were bare despite them coupled. “Now, that is inauspicious.” Having a flight to catch, Emily excused herself, but not before confessing she loved him.

Venice had a twelve hour time difference. Thrice a week, around nine at night, when it was the same time in the morning in Wellington, Emily video-called Musaffar, dressed in tees and pyjamas, lounged onto the bed. She would lay on her stomach with her feet marching, usually telling Musaffar that although the workload increased with time, her bank balance did so too. She assured him that soon they would have “innumerable moments” to themselves, by the Harbour’s tranquil breeze.

They didn’t talk long. Emily had a strict bedtime routine — no later than ten, because at times, she worked three weeks without break, eyes fixed to the laptop, clicking around to load grey and black cubes onto each other, then toppling them back down to start all over again, or, erasing sketches on vellum paper, puffing away the rubber residue, and then adjusting the set squares back on with 3B pencils and securing 2H ones to the compass.

Once back at the motel, she would take a shower straight-away, letting the warm water massage each and every ligament on her body. Given July’s humidity she tried to change things, and opted for a cold shower. The water initially pinched every pore on her skin as she gasped for air, steaming the glass door with her breaths.

Eventually, when her body got accustomed to the cold water, Emily drew a M onto the shower glass door, however it faded away in seconds. She breathed in again, deeper, and puffed out more air, and wrote again, hoping this time it would stay long enough for her to stare at.

It made her recall Musaffar exhaling onto their car’s window to write her name in Urdu. He drew two dots above two dots, and an arc and a straight line — Emily had a hunch he could well be kidding her, written some gibberish stuff to please her. The language appeared so foreign, she couldn’t relate a single thing to English alphabets.

That night, when she video called Musaffar, she told him that the deposit was ready. She had had spoken to Rachel already, and it was just a matter of time before they turned the pages of ‘Property Press’ to choose their new home. As she spoke, she noticed Musaffar’s eyes different. They retreated back into his skull, as if soon it would disappear altogether leaving two blank spots on his face.

When she asked him what the matter was, he smiled and asked if she had seen hers. Straight away Emily’s focus turned onto the little square image of her, down below to the right on the  phone screen. It took a total of three taps on the screen, one to activate the screen, another to cancel the ‘camera’ option, and the third to confirm it, before she held the phone to her ear. “The project is almost done, I will land next Friday.”

Musaffar wasn’t home when Emily arrived, so she called him immediately, asking where he was, and that she was waiting for him at home. Musaffar was at the Mosque, attending to his usual afternoon prayer. He estimated that he would be back in fifteen, twenty at the latest. So Emily went into the kitchen, opened the cabinet below the counter, and fished out a bottle of Pinot noir.

She poured herself a glass and stared out the kitchen window. The sky was a deep blue with fluffy white clouds in the middle. It was that sky, that space above the world, that she had soared for thirty continuous hours, and brought back the key to owning a home by the Harbour for the rest of her life. “Not bad, Emily,” she congratulated herself, and sipped. 

Half an hour had passed but Musaffar never showed up. Emily called him again, the phone to her ear, and the wine glass on her lips, but Musaffar didn’t answer. His phone rang continuously until the answering machine cracked to life : “Hi, This is Musaffar. I am sorry I cannot take your call right now, but please leave a message and I will get back to you. Thank you.”

Emily heard this same prompt over and over again, whenever she dialled, at two or three minute intervals, as she paced from the kitchen into the lounge, toward the vanilla curtains. She sat herself on the sofa edge and wondered about all the possibilities.

His battery may have died, she thought. But she knew he kept a charger handy in the dashboard. He may have had a puncture and was busy repairing it. But she knew that he surely would have called her to say he would be running late. Maybe he was filling up petrol and found an old friend and got busy chatting. But then he must have heard his phone ring.

The situation baffled Emily, nothing seemed to fit into place, so she went into the kitchen and poured her another glass. She fetched sliced cheese from the fridge, spread it onto crackers and munched.

An entire hour had passed and there was absolutely no clue about Musaffar; he had disappeared into thin air like wisps of smoke from a chimney. To help make sense of the situation, she called Rachel, and asked her to come over.

Because it would take Rachel at least half an hour to reach her, Emily sat down erect on the sofa, and turned on the television. The news reporter barked “breaking news,” while bright red captions ran from right to left. It was something about shootings at the local Mosque, on Aroha St. Gruesome. Morbid. Emily turned it off, and leaned back, trying to wipe away whatever she saw.

Her eyes ran all over the wall, and straight onto the painting she had bought, and forgotten all about. Walking closer to it, Emily peered at the sight of the chalet, the hammock, the Kauri trees glistening in the sunset, as magenta sun rays sparked onto them from the right end border. Near this edge, Emily discovered another little hook hammered into the wall. From it, two gold bangles dangled. 

Categories: Fiction

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