Addiction

Nassor paused, confronted by the multi-coloured throng of people that appeared to surge and ebb like the waves on the beach. The cacophony of movement and noise assaulted him; a hubbub of voices, greetings, vendors calling out, the splutter of motor bikes weaving past, the shout of a barrow boy intent on advancing with his load, and constant, in the background, the base rhythm of modern African music.

Someone nudged him from behind and he turned, startled. A couple of women in black buibui, heads averted from him so they appeared as swaying black forms of fabric, brushed past him before crisscrossing their way through the crowds. He fell in behind them, allowing himself to be carried along in the movement of people headed west. The sun was hot and blinding. Nassor squinted and pulled his nylon baseball cap down on his forehead.

Sweat was running into his eyes and he used the long sleeve of his t-shirt to wipe across his brow. In a few minutes he had reached the small shop house and pushed his way past a couple of women chatting in the doorway. He called out a cursory greeting. A young man dressed in an orange shirt and leaning against the glass counter called out, “karibu,” then continued playing with his mobile phone. His welcome was automatic not genuine. The inside of the shop was cool and air-conditioned. Nassor shivered.

The Indian owner of the shop, dressed in a white kanzu robe, was sitting behind the counter intent on reading the ‘Daily News’; his eyes squinting through his narrow glasses that sat halfway down his nose. Only when Nassor stood fidgeting in front of the counter did he look up.

Nassor fumbled in the back pocket of his jeans that hung fashionably low showing a strip of colourful underpants. In a moment, with a trembling hand, he’d placed the ring on the glass counter-top. The shopkeeper gave a knowing smile while the young man looked on with a bored expression then returned to playing with his phone.

“How much?” Nassor asked. He wasn’t able to keep the desperation from his voice.

The shopkeeper held the ring in his left hand and picked up a large ancient looking magnifying glass. He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head and squinted through the glass.

Nassor moved his weight from one foot to the other and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.

“A nice stone.” He paused and turned the ring around again. “18 carat gold. And it is engraved inside.”

Nassor had forgotten about the engraving. A wave of guilt washed over him and he was sure he was blushing; one of the disadvantages of his relatively pale skin and Arabic descent. He mumbled, “My mother asked me to sell it. You know how expensive everything is becoming in the shops these days.”

“Indeed.” The shopkeeper looked up, placed the ring down emphatically and said, “Thirty Thousand.”

“But …” Nassor hesitated. It was worth far more than that but he didn’t want to have to go elsewhere. He needed the sale to go through right now. “Surely it is worth forty.” It came out more like a question.

The shopkeeper held his gaze and raised an eyebrow.

Nassor wanted to bargain with him but the nausea had returned and his whole body was sweating profusely. “Okay.”

The shopkeeper, with the ring now secreted in a small box, disappeared through a door into the dark depths of the old building. Nassor bit his lip and told himself to breathe through the intense desire to vomit.

 

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Red

The sun bounces off the water as the breeze whips up small ripples. Two ducks, their feet moving silently underwater, glide across the pond heading for the small island in the middle. Sitting on a bench a few metres from the edge, an old woman is hunched over her knitting needles intent on her task. She doesn’t notice the ducks, nor the people who are walking towards her on the narrow path, nor does she notice that the sun has come out and small beads of sweat are forming on her brow. The wool trails out of the brown paper bag, vibrant and red. She loves this colour. When she was younger she had always wanted a jumper this colour. It’s too late now, not at her age and with that pale thin skin scattered with those awful freckle things. What did they call them at the doctors? Liver spots. There’s nothing wrong with her liver. She had’t drunk herself to death like that useless husband of hers. No, she isn’t going to think about that today. She’s going to enjoy herself finishing off this jumper for her grandson and in a minute she’ll get her sandwich out and the extra piece of bread she has brought for the ducks. She pauses and looks up to see where the ducks are. A young couple walk past holding hands. How sweet she thinks and lets out a chuckle.

 

The man hears the soft laughter and glances at the old woman sitting on the bench. She is looking at them. Her hands move fast, as if of their own accord. He sees the red. The red jumper. He freezes. His wife turns around and is saying something. Her mouth is moving, but he can’t hear. Tears start to fall down his cheeks.

 

There’s cheese, spinach, tomatoes and onions in the fridge. Shall I make a pasta dish or a simple salad. Now the sun is out it’s getting quite hot. When we get back I might sit in the back garden for a while and work on my tan. A cup of tea would be nice. Yes. A salad will be quicker. Best check with Adam. He’s not very talkative today. Hope he’s not getting those blue feelings again. I’ve tried to get him into conversation, but I’m buggered if he’ll say much. Wonder if something happened at work yesterday that he hasn’t told me about. He’d rather have pasta I bet. “Would you like salad …” I start to speak but he’s stopped and is staring at something. His face has gone white. I follow his gaze. An old woman is sitting knitting. It’s a small red jumper.

 

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The Master

I entered the room apprehensively and walked across the wooden floor to where the group of people stood chatting. A few of them smiled a welcome. A petite woman dressed all in black greeted me and said my name questioningly. She explained that we would start the class in a few minutes to allow time for payment and for some to take a quick bite to eat or have a drink. Once I’d paid she led me to a man who was standing eating a large piece of homemade carrot cake. He was the centre of the group in all ways. With a welcoming smile and laughing eyes he welcomed me.

“Have you done Tai Chi before?” he asked.

“I have. A few years ago when I lived in Singapore.” I was nervous in front of this man whom I had heard so much about.

“What form?”

I was aware that he wasn’t the only one listening. “It was with a Master Ang and it was his own Yang style.”

“Great.” It was said with sincerity where I thought he might have been dismissive.

I smiled waiting for him to continue.

“We do the Beijing 24. It’s a short form. We started last week, but I’m sure you’ll catch up.” He turned to wash his hands in the sink before drying them and running them over his closely shaven head. All his movements were deliberate.

I looked at the others and saw they were all making moves to be ready for the start of the class. A few walked across the room and spread out. Most were barefooted some wore soft shoes. I removed my sandals and found a space. The boards were shiny, well worn and smooth underfoot.

He walked, almost gliding, to the front and everyone fell silent. A large grin lit up his face. “Let’s warm up,” he said spreading his legs apart and beginning to shake his body. We followed in a series of movements and stretches. Some minutes later he stopped. He stood motionless,  eyes closed, serene, with his hands placed over his kwa. I copied, watching through half-open eyes, unsure as to whether or not they should be open or closed and not wanting to miss anything. Then he let out a massive burp. I was shocked, but saw his posture and serenity hadn’t changed. Then other burps followed around the room. I was soon to realise it was the awakening of the kwa, and when I too had mastered it my burps would be just as profound.

“Let’s begin.” He opened his eyes. “I’ll go through the whole form first.”

We watched in awe. He moved as if in a trance. The soft black fabric of his tunic, swayed and fluttered with the movements. The energy in his body, obvious with each slow change of posture. His mastery of the art form showed us how body, energy and mind all became one.

When he had finished he looked around unfazed by the feeling of reverence around him. “Okay. It’s your turn now.”

 

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The Letter

The meeting was tedious and I sprinted for the train. If I was quick I would be home before the night drew in. I hated these short days. The sharp beeping announced a train was coming into the station, still a hundred metres away. I’d missed it.

Sitting on an empty bench minutes later I started thinking about the mug of tea I would make when I got home and what I would cook. My eyes glanced on a folded sheet of blue paper near my feet. I was still thinking about what I should make for dinner when I noticed the black handwriting was unmistakably written with a fountain pen. This intrigued me. It was unusual nowadays to see handwritten letters. I tried to think of the last time I had written one. I communicate with people all the time, but either by email, phone or on Facebook.

I picked it up. The paper was heavy – good quality. The elegant writing only filled part of one side and ended with

Forever yours,

Stephen.

Where was the rest of the letter? I scanned under the bench and saw nothing. I looked about me, almost guiltily. It felt so personal. Should I even be reading this? But my curiosity was piqued.

If only you had told me sooner. Did you not believe in what we could achieve and do together?

Can’t we meet?

If I don’t hear from you I’ll know the answer.

And that was it. What did it mean? Had it been delivered? Did Stephen know it was abandoned or lost on a train platform? Could it be that the person it was addressed to had never received it? Or had they thrown it away?

I turned it over again, somehow wishing I’d missed something.There was nothing but a watermark. I wanted an address. I wanted it to have another chance. I wanted them to have another chance.

The sound of the train arriving at the station broke into my thoughts. I stood up, looked at the letter one last time, then let it fall back to the floor.

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Singing Wren

“What’s going in that pot?”

“Dad wants to put the bamboo in it,” I say for the fifth time in twenty-four hours. My gaze falls on the large Malaysian plant pot across the lawn at the far side of the garden.

“Oh” Mum continues wiping the glass of the outside table. It’s smeared with cheese and the debris of yesterday’s eating.

I watch her and wonder how her brain is now working. What would it be like to start to lose your memory? Outwardly she appears the same if not a little older and more shrunken. She jokes that she is shrinking each year. It isn’t a joke. She visibly shrinks before our eyes as she reaches the last of her octogenarian years and moves towards her next decade. What do you call someone in their nineties? A nonagenarian. That sounds wrong. It should be some not none.

She pauses on her way up the steps to the back door leading into the kitchen, tilts her head, listening. “Oh, he’s been calling for his mate all week.” She sets off again as the bird’s high-pitched song dances around the garden. “Poor thing.”

I look around scanning the rose arch, yew and hawthorn hedge, the scattered shrubs and summer flowers, searching for the wren. I know it is a wren for she told me yesterday when we walked around the garden. She had named the plants and knew which season they would be in flower and the colour and size of blossom, which ones were scented and which ones they’d placed in the wrong spot, where they couldn’t flourish.

A lifetime of knowledge.

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