by Maniza Naqvi
“Life, Madam is full of little, little inconveniences.” The receptionist, in a soothing tone, wearing the uniform of a friendly welcoming smile had said. “I do apologize for the delay but please give us half an hour and your room will be ready. In the meantime please enjoy our hotel lobby café and complimentary welcoming tea.” He suggested, with a wave of his hand towards a space behind her. “It will only be a half hour.”
The white noise of the in house music tinkled in the background and beckoned her to be understanding and on good behavior. There was nothing to be done but wait. Her room wasn’t ready, her predecessor had left it in a mess apparently—hence the delay—and by the explanation given, she imagined that, floors had to be disinfected and so on.
Sleep deprived, she sits nursing her second cup of jasmine tea, struggling not to fall asleep in the armchair which was placed near a large potted fern.
“I thought it was you! What are you doing here?”
She starts and looks up, she hasn’t seen him in over a year—he looks the same—bloated belly, bloated face–too much whiskey. His mane of once, grey hair now white and thinning. The trade mark denim shirt still in place, the urban legend, himself.
“What am I doing here? Well, I’m here for the Literature Festival” She replies, “And you?”
“Ah the literature festival, yes I am speaking tomorrow morning in a panel.”
“Are you? So am I. Are you staying at the hotel?” She asks.
“No. Why should I stay at the hotel? I live here.”
“Yes, I know. But I thought given the hour, you may have decided to stay here.” She is irritated by the way he says it. He always has to point out to her that she doesn’t belong here.
Before she can reply, there is a power outage. They sit in the dark and in the sudden silence all around them. It lasts only a few seconds. The lights come on and daze her. She feels a headache coming on just between her eyes.
He says “So you are here. Yes. I presume to speak about your novels?”
“Yes. Of course, I am. It is a Literature festival. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.”
He laughs. “Yes, I am sure you wouldn’t have. But you must surely know novels are good for nothing here, particularly, novels in English such as yours. What is the readership for these, other than the tiny group of venal elite? No, completely, irrelevant. Now, on the other hand there is a lady in Sialkot who writes Urdu novels, she has millions of readers—a festival such as this one has no meaning and no relevance for her or her readers. She would never come to such a thing. She is the real writer at least she is for me.”
“Good for her. She writes as she writes. And I write as I do.”
“She lives here, she is relevant.”
“I can see what you are implying, must you always hurt , be so negative…..”
“Hurt? Negative? I’m not implying anything” He interrupts her “I’m saying it quite clearly. Festivals like this are irrelevant.”
She replies in almost a whisper “And yet, even the great amazing you, the great man who remains a resident of the city, the urban legend— you, —- you are participating tomorrow…though you haven’t written a book have you?”
He stands up in a fury and shouts so that the few people left in the lobby at this hour around them can hear “I can’t talk to people like you!” He starts to gets up and stoops as he reaches for a bag that he has placed on the floor between them—she moves to help him pick it up—her hand touches his. He brushes her hand away—“So you are going to take over this as well—snatch this away too?” She is taken aback.
“I’m tired” she says, “I’m tired of you.”
He is furious and still loud “It really is rich how people like you come here, jet in for the limelight at festivals as though you are relevant here, as though you have something worth saying. You don’t live here, you ran away to make your pots of money elsewhere, you don’t endure the daily trials of living here…yet you show up to claim its fame for yourselves.” Before she can say another word—he is gone. She feels ashamed of herself. She watches him hurrying toward the entrance of the hotel.
She feels her legs hurting, her stomach is cramping. It must be him or something she ate, and she is exhausted. The layover in Dubai was more than eight hours. She tried to write at the airport, she has missed a deadline for a short story. Her editor is patient but irritated. She’s been juggling too many things—she can’t be so many different people, one day one thing another day another. Hour to hour. Can she? At the airport she had wandered from one end to the other of the terminal counting the passing hours. She had bought a pair of Prada eyeglasses—asked other transit passengers making their way to their gates for their opinions on which pair best suited her. She had bought foundation makeup – a thing, she had never felt the need for before or ever used. Now under the glare of the airport lights, peering in the mirror on the sales counter, there seemed to be no other alternative but this. Coming back did this to her, always, she felt the need to get behind layers and layers of protection. She had changed out of her dusty weathered brown field leather boots, khaki jeans and tee-shirt into a long knee length loose cotton tunic and tight white pants—and heels. She had donned a long white cotton scarf.
Now, she enters her room, it smelled of lemon scented disinfectant—It could be a hotel room anywhere—It was that anywhere room. Her luggage has been brought in and is placed against the wall. There is a complimentary fruit basket—Keenos and strawberries. She smiles. She hears the puttering bursts of gunfire in the distance—somewhere. She goes over to the window and draws aside the heavy curtains, she draws in her breath in delight—a huge moon is rising above the Korangi creek at the mouth of the Arabian sea. Yachts and launches as though asleep, float anchored at the pier. A red moon, its reflection melts into the waters. “A red moon” She says to herself out loud. “A sign, that there will be bloodshed.”
She lies down across the width of the king sized bed—Sleep over powers her, she feels the cramps. Damn him. She feels like her skin is baking, she is hot and now sweating. So this is what a hot flash is all about. She throws off her tunic—slips out of the pants, unhooks the bra, wrenches off the panties. Aaah, the coolness of the clean sheets against her skin!
She wakes up, to the sound of hyenas laughing—they're coming up the river bed in Addis. Then she remembers where she is—it’s only the guests in the corridor making their way to their rooms. She mumbles a line—she’ll say during her talk tomorrow morning—“Someday they will put up a monument to the real heroes, the ones who sold their bodies and did hard labor as maids in the Middle East so that whole villages could eat so that the economy could prosper and who in return were assured, by their country, that if they died, if they were murdered at the hands of their wealthy employers, Ethiopian airlines would provide the coffin and fly them back home cost free.” She falls back into sleep.
She wakes to the feel of wetness beneath her—she reaches to feel between her legs–she feels the wet stickiness— “Oh Shit”, she mutters, “Fucking shit!” She has completely forgotten the dates. She lies there in the dark she’ll ignore it, and for now sleep. The sheets are already soiled. So it doesn’t matter. She can continue to bleed. She’ll handle that in the morning. She needs to sleep. She is on in the first round of sessions in the morning—she needs to rest, she must catch up on her sleep. It comes to her, the opening line for the short story she has to write by tomorrow night “Last night she turned the moon into the star—and you no longer mattered.”
She is awakened again by her bladder, she needs to pee. The wet patch beneath her is turning her backside cold. She gets up, reaches for the lamp switch. Nothing happens. It’s another power outage. She makes her way to the bathroom, opens the door and steps in. She hears the door shut behind her with a soft woosh and a click. It’s locked shut. The lights come on.
She is standing in the corridor. Naked. Bleeding.
Also by Maniza Naqvi here