Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Md Sharjeel Ahmed


What Nikki Saw

11:45 pm
When she heard the knock on the door Nikki somehow knew it was those two. When they came in they looked flushed, as if exhausted, and she thought they must have made love before coming over. They were all at a friend's place to celebrate the birthday, and since they arrived before midnight, they were not late. It could take a long time, many years even, for herself to arrive at a party with her husband's hand on her shoulder, Nikki thought and pressed her lips inside and smiled at the couple. They were married two years now and still showed no signs of bad weather; it seemed as if it was always lovely between them. She offered to them the plate of barbecued chicken she was eating from.
Throughout the party, amid 16 people in a small apartment, Nikki noticed, he kept asking about and looking out for his wife whenever she wasn't beside him. She wondered if her husband, if ever there was to be one, would also look around the same way, asking everybody in sight "Oh, where's my wife? Has she eaten anything? Did anybody make a drink for her yet?" and so on. These guys are love, she thought, and I'm not even asking for too much of it -- is even a little too much to ask? The boy she was dating was still a student and had no intentions of getting married anytime soon, and as much as she had no interest in marriage either, she was by now weak from the emotional whipping by her parents. Fine, she had told them back in her hometown, you look for a guy that is willing to marry me without making me sit at home and worship him; I couldn't find anybody for myself, not by now. Over scotch and chicken legs she told the gang of friends, all in their mid or late twenties, that she had spoken to a man her parents liked, that he earned about 13 times what she earned now, and how he asked her if she really 'needed' to work after marriage. Hang in there, they all told her, and never settle for anybody that does not deserve you. I know, Nikki said, but how?

Later when she saw the husband bend over the forehead of his wife and kiss her forehead three times and pull her cheeks and speak something softly to her and run his hands over her thick hair, Nikki pursed her lips inside again and felt large in happiness for them and small in sadness for herself and then she felt resentment for herself for feeling sad for herself. That's when he looked up and glanced around the room and saw Nikki looking at them, so she turned away quickly and most of the thoughts halted in their run, and she asked for a refill of scotch.

10:45 pm
"Sorry, baby; my stupid colleagues went on and on blabbering in the meeting," she said, but she looked undisturbed. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," he croaked, and started the car. She kept talking about work and how her stupid boss had to call for a meeting just when she was about to leave and how her colleagues kept wasting time in the meeting when there was nothing really useful to discuss, but since it was a weekend night they had to discuss what went on in the week and what had to be done the next week and so on, but he wasn't really listening.
"Did you eat anything?" she asked him, chirpy as ever.
"No," he croaked again.
"Why didn't you eat anything? Are you mad or what? I told you there is food in the fridge and you just had to heat it..." she yelled at him.
"Can you just shut up? Is that too much to ask?" he yelled louder.
"What is the matter with you? I said I am sorry, right?" she yelled even louder.
"I don't care! I'm sick of having to wait 45 minutes outside your office so late at night just because you are too nice to walk out of a goddamned meeting. This is not the bloody first time!" he shouted even louder.
"What do you want me to do? Quit my job?"
"I don't care, okay? Tell them you have a bloody husband who's waiting like a fool outside..."
"Fine! I will just resign and sit at home then ... I can't do this ... I told you I'm sorry ... I walked so fast and in a rush and I was the first one to walk out of the office after the meeting ended because I knew you were waiting and it doesn't feel good to me either but what do you want me to do?" she shouted, and they both yelled at each other this way until they reached outside of their house. One there, he quickly got out of the car and banged the door hard and looked at her sitting inside, and he gestured for her to come out but she made a childish face and gestured for him to get back in the car. He shook his head in disbelief and walked towards their house, then, after a pause, turned back towards the car and saw her sitting inside looking like a very hurt child, but he didn't get inside the car. He stood outside of it and folded his hands, and after giving him a bad stare she walked out of the car and they walked in silence till they were inside of the house and the door was locked.
"I'm not going to the party," she said in a low voice.
"Are you kidding me? Are we children here? Look, it's not their fault, and it is somebody's birthday and the least we can do is show up after they've made all the arrangements. They're expecting us and they never cancel on us, you know that, right?" he said in a raised voice, but he wasn't yelling still.
"I am not going," she said, and went into the kitchen, and he went into their bedroom and sat on the bed with his head in his hands. He started to question himself; where or how did this thing get out of hand, what happened, exactly? He recalled getting thoroughly furious when, after a wait of a half hour, he saw 10:30 on the clock in his car. But he had still said to himself aloud "It's okay, it's fine, it is not her fault and you should be calm." He remembered taking deep breaths at 10:40 and still repeating his message to himself; it is fine, she's just a little late; no harm, be calm. Okay, he said, okay fine, it is my fault, I should not have shouted, she is just another employee who cannot be rude to her boss, it's okay, you married her because you love her because she is that sweet; be calm now, you can apologize and it will be over. Then he repeated it to himself with his head still in his hands and the vague sounds of kitchen utensils as background noise, and he felt the boiling of his blood ebb; it felt like he was taking a bath, it felt like relief.
"Will His Royal Highness come into the kitchen once," she called out, and he looked up from his hands and felt like the water in the bath just turned a 100 degrees; he felt a burning inside him, and then saw her walking towards him with a slight smirk on her face and he realised that his body was shaking with anger now.
"This is all just a joke to you, isn't it? I am a joke to you," he said in a low voice of disbelief. She sat down suddenly in front of him and took his hands in hers, and told him no, baby, it's not, I'm sorry; but he kept looking away from her and kept repeating in a low voice yes, yes, it is, but she kept saying no, baby, I'm sorry, it is not, and then she started crying forcefully and started shouting "This is all my fault; everything is my fault; it is always my fault; I am dumb; I am so stupid; it is all my fault." Then she started slapping herself with both her hands. He tried and tried to hold her hands and stop her but she got herself three times, after which he jumped at her and hugged her tightly so that she couldn't move at all and she broke down fully then. With his head behind her head, he felt a couple of teardrops escape his eyes but she couldn't feel it because his body was not shaking from crying like hers was. He held on to her tightly for a long time and started saying I'm sorry, I'm sorry, and she kept on crying for a long time in his arms without hugging him or pushing away.
After she calmed down a little and slowed down on crying he took her face in his hands and kissed it many times and all the time he kept repeating I'm sorry, baby, I really am, and she looked like she believed him and she kept slowing down on crying until there weren't any more tears coming out. Then she wiped her eyes and nose and said I know, and I'm sorry too, and I really tried to leave early and I really did feel bad for making you wait so long. Then they both kissed each other but he was kissing her more until she said okay now enough, let's wash up change and go to the party.
9:45 pm
When her colleague came back in to the conference room she jumped a little and hid her phone below the large table. Her colleagues had gone out for a smoke and she was waiting alone in the conference room for the weekly wrap-up meeting to start.
"Forgot my lighter," her tall teammate said, smiling a little sheepishly at her, as if he caught her doing something wrong and felt a little sorry about it. But he didn't hang around; the lighter was in his bag so he took it out and left in under a minute and she was alone in the airy conference room again. She sighed and pulled back her phone, and went back to making lovey-dovey faces at the picture on her phone screen. It was the husband in a selfie where he was looking fairer and handsomer than he was, and also happier than usual. There was some occasion to that photo; he was wearing a new shirt or a new pair of shades or something, and she tried to remember what it was but then she saw a shadow move near the door so she jumped a little again and hid her phone under the desk and switched the screen off. Then she looked at the time and said to herself that they'll be back any minute now, and she looked around for cameras and colleagues, and then quickly pulled the phone out and switched the screen on and kissed the photo and switched it back off and put it inside her bag.
He was in their bed and laying wrapped inside a thick blanket that smelled a little of sweat, and he kept kissing the blanket with her face in his closed eyes, and he was telling himself only a little loudly "Yes it is worth it, of course it is worth it." He was thinking about all the cuteness she brings to their little home and to this little family of two, and of all the things and people he gave up for her and all the things and people she gave up for him and how in the last three years he never for once felt like it was not worth it. Then he realised he was laying in bed for a long time and he turned around to check the time and he thought, "Damn, it's getting late, I must reach her office by 10 pm sharp because it is really cold outside and she shouldn't have to wait."


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