Landed back and managed to get online just in time for the Write...Edit...Publish monthly challenge hosted by Denise Covey. My entry is another snippet from my novella, because offline life has been more than hectic and I couldn't manage anything fresh, though I wanted to. Way over word count too and not much of an attempt at editing, for both of which my apologies.
Moonlit Waters III
Umm Mahmoud crossed the road and climbed up the few wide but shallow steps onto the lobby. She was the charwoman for several flats here in this high rise next to the river, she had been coming across to clean these homes for years. The gateman came from the same village, a friend of her brothers, though all of them had left their respective village homes long ago. Umm Mahmoud had no close relatives, she had come to the city with her husband who died untimely, leaving her with a single son to raise.
She raised him as best as she could, but he grew up to be wayward and demanding, hopping from one job to another and then finally leaping into a permanent, nagging unemployment; waiting for the right break to come along, and meanwhile used up his mother’s meagre savings to chase one foolish business idea after another and never made a go of them. Messed up his life and blamed his mother for being a drag when she refused to fund the next venture. Nothing at home was good enough, and then when all the unrest started, he used that as a front to just disappear one day. She preferred to think that he was trapped in one of the prisons, and still went to check periodically for news, though it was now amply clear what exactly had happened.
The doorman Ahmad gave the keys to the flats she cleaned but pointedly did not ask her for the son’s news, the exchange of greetings was short. She sighed and got into the lift after the briefest of chats, she knew not to impose on people’s patience. She knew that people tire easily of a lone middle-aged woman’s misery, she had learnt to keep her problems to herself. Her routine was to start with the top floor and work downwards, and she let herself into the flat with the large terrace, where she had watched her employer try for a container garden and fail repeatedly.
She had a soft spot for this agnabee, this foreigner who could be her own son give or take a year or two, but so different. He did not treat her like she had no feelings, though he said little and smiled even less. He always left the flat tidy, the dirty dishes stacked neatly in the sink, the laundry cleanly sorted into piles to wash, his slippers aligned next to the door, the newspaper folded crisply on the table. To her it conveyed a sort of respect, one that a young man may show to a distant aunt, he treated her more like an elderly family member than a cleaning woman. Called her aunty too, not Umm Mahmoud. He was a strange one, this man. He had a hurt child’s eyes in a taut face that looked much older than he was, and it was that way even when he came first, before all that business of the wife coming and then leaving and then the sudden divorce and the flat being back to a bachelor pad.
She had been a quiet sort too, the madame, but it was not the same quiet as her husband, more a dismissal, a reluctance to mingle in case something within her lost its integrity by the interaction. Umm Mahmoud did not like her much for all that she was beautiful, ma’ashallah so beautiful, almost like a film star. She did not interfere much in the work either, let Umm Mahmoud do it the way she has always done, but she was difficult in inexplicable ways. She was glad the lady was gone, though it was not in her to rejoice at someone’s misfortune. Neither of them seemed happy, the new groom nor the bride, and what was the point of prolonging the hurt? Better that they make an end, cut their losses and gain some peace. Only thing was her agnabee had gained no peace, even after everything was neat and clean, cleanly cut. She could tell somehow, though on the surface nothing changed. All those frantic attempts at growing herbs and flowers and things, again and again like some kind of gardening epidemic had got hold of him. That was not a man at peace.
In the bedroom, Umm Mahmoud noticed the canvas on the easel was done. It had been set up after a long time, he had not painted a picture since the madame left. Suddenly up with a pristine new canvas and all that paraphernalia of paints and rags and brushes, though typically neatly arranged on the table. When she had seen him paint earlier, she had never understood the paintings. He did not paint anything that looked like anything, not birds or flowers or people, just odd globs of colour blending into each other, and she had to squint hard to find a shape that she could recognise as a man or house or tree.
He had seen her trying to puzzle it out, and explained – look, this was a sail, and this was a heron, and a bit of a building sitting next to an old temple. She had not understood. But he had not stopped. He had gone on in that quiet voice of his, his accent only slightly foreign, as though she had brains enough to understand every bit. She had nodded without gaining any insight, but had been pleased at being treated as an equal in cultural discernment.
This painting seemed different, though there were odd things about it too. She looked at it and wondered if he had met someone new, if there was a woman he was thinking of bringing to the flat, maybe getting married again. She felt glad for him, but a little apprehensive as well. Who knew what this one would be like? The previous week, when she had seen the easel last, it had looked like all the others he had done, blobs of colour running into each other, but he must have worked over the weekend and it was finished now. At any rate, she could recognise the images, and it was very different from the pictures that he had once explained. This one needed no explanation because she could see for herself what it was.
A grey lake, the waters deep and still, and the sunlight was bright but with a disturbing slant that made her feel hollow inside with sadness. How could light make a soul feel sad? The painting was lit up with light and colours and contrasts between the denuded and detailed, and yet the whole effect combined to make her vaguely uneasy. There was a lonely boat bobbing empty in the distance, and on the horizon a blur of mountains and sand and dark little shadowy spaces. In the foreground, a large red-black wool cushion had been thrown down, with the stripey design depicted in perfect detail. An empty tea-glass sat a little shaky on it, the dregs reflecting a sky with ribbons of white clouds.
Maybe the woman had left it there after she finished. The woman who now stood on the lakeshore, almost stepping into the grey waves, in black robes with her face turned away featureless, just a delicate curve. Only the brilliant colours of her scarf showed up against the grey-blue waters. On her wrist hung a pair of royal blue shell bracelets, exactly the same sort of bracelets that had been twined around the bedpost for the last fortnight.
WC - 1250
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