She had just opened her menu in the restaurant when it all came apart.
She’d been outside, walking, and the night outside was warm and scented with flowers in the trees that gave out a heavy, cloying smell. She’d been walking for hours now, it seemed to her, wandering the maze of streets away from the hotel, not knowing where she was going, not really caring. The smells and sights of the town were strange, but she scarcely saw or heard a thing, her thoughts turned to what might or might not be going on with him.
“It’s going to do you good,” her friends had told her after the break-up. “You need a vacation anyway. Get away for a while. Go abroad, have a nice time. You’ll be better.”
So she’d dug out her passport, made sure it still had a few months on it before it expired, and summoned up the willpower to check out travel brochures and make plans. And, finally, sitting in the aisle seat, she’d felt it in the pit of her stomach as the aeroplane lifted off the runway, and she’d thought that her problems might be falling away from her like the ground below.
Only, that hadn’t been true at all. Two weeks in this country, listening to the strange voices with their inflected speech and lilting accents, and things were still the same. She’d been up in the north, where the sands of the desert stretched out to distant brown hills on the horizon. She’d been down to the beach in the south, where the tourists flocked, and lay around almost naked in the sun while talking to each other in thirty languages. She didn’t belong with them – nothing of their world had anything to do with hers. The young men and women parading on the sand in almost nothing were as alien to her as though they came from somewhere beyond the stars.
She’d finally come to this city, sprawling on both sides of the wide brown river, hoping that here she might find some distraction in the ancient architecture. So far, she had found nothing except more of the same.
Two days later, she would be flying home. She’d decided that once she was home, she’d try to confront the problem head-on. Talk to him, maybe even meet him; try to either get him out of her system altogether or perhaps even patch things up. She wasn’t doing herself any good wandering the streets of a foreign country, hardly knowing what she was doing, that was for sure.
“Handbag, madam?” The vendor’s voice was weary, as he repeated the same thing he’d said a hundred times today already. “Good handbag, real leather.” She passed him with a slight shake of her head, an automatic smile on her lips. She’d turned down so many vendors over the last weeks that she no longer even noticed what they were trying to sell her.
Walking, her hand moved down to her purse where the mobile phone rested. She had bought international roaming, just for this trip, so she could stay in touch if she had to, without depending on local phone services which the guidebook had assured her were unreliable at best. So far, all she’d ever done was finger the phone – she’d never used it, not once, after arriving, not even to send a text message to the friends who’d asked her to come on this trip. And she now knew that she wouldn’t use it – not now, when her return home was so close. She would wait two days more and then talk to him face to face. But, still, she fingered her mobile, her face expressionless, her eyes far away.
It would be so easy. She didn’t even need to look up his number in the phone memory – she knew it as well as she knew her own. It was still mid-afternoon where he was; he would be at home now, perhaps preparing to go to work; he always worked evening and night shifts at the hospital. She’d call him, and he’d pick up the phone, with the anxious eagerness that was always in his voice when she called. She’d call him, and then…?
What would she say? What could she say? Tell me how to set things right? Set me free? Come back to me?
I’m halfway round the world, walking the streets, going crazy for you, and I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.
She shook her head, a tiny gesture, and her hand left the bag. She couldn’t call him like this.
As she wandered up a narrow street lined with shops of various kinds, motor parts and handicrafts, she thought about the time she’d thought she actually could be with him, overcome the past and her own fears. It had seemed so close, so real, and she’d almost told him then. But she’d held back, too long, and then she’d lost him. She still did not know who was to blame. Someone was, for sure. He, perhaps, for not waiting any longer. Or she, for not telling him while there was still time. Or, maybe, the things that had happened in the past and made her who she was. Perhaps those who had done all that were the ones to blame.
After a while she discovered she was hungry. She wasn’t sure when she’d last eaten. Had she had lunch, or was breakfast the last thing she’d had inside her? Suddenly ravenous, she looked around. The street she was on now wasn’t a main road, but was lined with more upscale establishments, boutiques, furniture showrooms and a couple of restaurants. She chose the nearer one, the one without Chinese characters on the door, and entered.
It was dimly lit, amber lights hanging from the ceiling, cigarette smoke eddying through the air. Her nose wrinkled at the smell, and she briefly considered trying the Chinese place, but she was hungry, it was getting late, and she’d have to find her way back to the hotel, wherever that was now. Besides, the place was reassuringly crowded, full of people – including plenty of foreigners, like her – and only a table or two empty.
A waiter in a red uniform showed her to one of the empty tables, in the far corner. From her she could see the entrance, and the heads of the diners bent over their food and conversation in the dim amber light reminded her of times in the past, and she almost did it then, she almost reached into her bag, got the phone out and called him. Almost.
The waiter brought over a menu, thickly bound and embossed with a logo of a crossed knife and fork. She felt his eyes on her, curious. She was a foreigner, and fairly young; and yet wasn’t the backpacker kind, who might be alone. Not that they’d get many backpackers in a place like this. And she wasn’t of the upper-crust tourist kind, either – she wasn’t old enough, or rich enough, and they were never alone. She didn’t fit in.
At one time she’d have been interested, perhaps, in his story, of what kind of home he had, what sort of family. What did he think of serving food to people every day? What insights did it give him? She might have asked all this, another day, another time. Just now, she wanted nothing but to be alone.
More to get away from his gaze than because she was hungry –and suddenly her hunger ebbed away like the tide – she flipped open the menu and began looking through the pages. The local fare sounded strange and exotic, and she’d already learned not to order without knowing what she was going to get. She flipped the pages, looking for more familiar dishes, and when she felt on safer ground she looked up. The waiter had gone.
There was movement at the door, so she looked in that direction, at the man entering. A big man, she thought, a fat man, dressed inappropriately in a heavy jacket in the heat, his face surprisingly young and thin-looking for one so corpulent. He looked around the restaurant, his eyes briefly catching hers, and began making his way between the tables towards her.
It was then that she knew, with the certainty of absolute knowledge, what was about to happen. She knew it before his hand had even slipped inside his jacket, knew as he stopped in the exact centre of the restaurant, knew as his eyes met hers again, and held her gaze, letting her know that he knew that she knew, and that he knew as well that she couldn’t do a thing about it, that it was all too late by far.
The explosion split the world apart smashing her to the floor, agony searing through her as her head struck something, and the last thing she thought as consciousness slipped away was that she should have made that call while she could.
It couldn’t have been that long before she began to see and hear again, though everything seemed oddly dim and muffled. Before her eyes, someone’s hand and arm lay on the floor, protruding from under an overturned table. There were noises, screams and sirens, but they all sounded from very far away. She sat up, looking around. She couldn’t find her handbag. She couldn’t really even feel anything much any more. When she held her hand in front of her face, it looked blurred and unreal, as though she was looking at a shadow.
Fires were burning in a couple of places in the restaurant, spreading steadily, and people were entering, police and a couple of others with a stretcher between them. Their mouths were moving, shouting, and yet she couldn’t hear what they were saying, their voices lost in the screams and the sirens, and the sirens and screams themselves locked away behind a wall of silence. She walked between them, unnoticed, and out into the night.
Looking down at her feet moving on the pavement, as though from a long, long way away, she decided she really should have made that call, after all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011