Very early in the morning, Sa'eed woke up from his sleep. He felt as if his brain was being squeezed out, just the way he used to press water out of the sponge after the washing up. His head was heavy and his mind was feeling numb from lack of sleep. To go back to sleep was impossible. Dreams, once broken, couldn't be threaded back into sequence. The intoxication of non-awareness was not easily obtained. Short spells of sleep is a curse in old age.
Sa'eed switched on the lamp and looked at the time. It was six in the morning. Like every other day he gazed at the smooth white pillow beside him. He sighed deeply. Once, on that very pillow, his late wife's head used to rest. When he wanted to wake her up, he would gently brush the locks from her forehead. If she desired to lie a little longer in bed, she would place his hand under her warm cheek and closed her eyes. Otherwise she would calmly walk to the kitchen to fetch two cups of tea. Half propped up in the bed they would talk and plan their day. But his wife was not there anymore. Since her death, four years ago, the other half of the bed was unoccupied. There, he was alone by himself, to bear the burden of passing days, with the memories of the past.
Till late last evening he had kept awake and anxiously waited for the usual Friday call from his son. But, he was having a farewell party in his office before taking a new job in America. Every Friday evening they usually talked over the phone - the only means of keeping in touch with each other while living apart in different cities. His son would tell him his plans for the weekend. Then his grandchildren and his English daughter-in-law would say hello to him. That used to make him feel part of the family having his weekend with them. But, that was not the case last evening. He felt a painful loneliness around him. He was in agony that his son hadn't confided in him before taking up the job in America.
Sa'eed's loneliness was self-imposed. In spite of repeated requests by his son, he would not move from his home to live with or near his son and daughter-in-law. He had an attachment to the place. The decor of the house reminded him of his late wife. There were memories of hard work and the time he spent bringing a garden to maturity. He always felt that he had given to that garden his blood and sweat. He used to tell his wife that he could not think of life without that garden, for his roots were buried deep down in it. In that very house, his only child - his only son - was brought up. That house held the memories of the day when his son was adorned as a bridegroom.
Ellis, the home-help, came three times a week to clean the house. She also cooked meals for him and froze them for use during the week. How could one abandon a house filled with so many pleasant memories and comforts? And why should he interfere in the privacy of his son's family life and give up his independence? But, despite that self-resolve, nevertheless he was uneasy since his son decided to move to a America. There was a strange feeling of apprehension. He had passed his seventieth birthday. He thought death could come to him at anytime. In the absence of his son, who would carry out the Muslim's ceremonial last rites? He agonised about the idea of suffering a stroke and then being moved to a senior citizens' home. And the idea of passing the rest of his life among half-demented, crazy, old hogs tormented him.
Whenever his son rang, he hoped to hear that his plans had changed. He secretly wished that at least his son might decide for the time being not to go to America. But, he didn't say any such thing to him. And then there was less than ten days left before his departure. The previous evening he had been vexed and distressed because his son did not ring him.
But that morning he was angry with his son for his impoliteness, for his unkind and uncaring attitude, angry with his late wife for leaving him alone to face these miseries and angry with himself for his own helplessness. In that loneliness, in the vastness of his house, with no audible sound except his own breath, there was nobody to share his grief.
The restlessness of these crowded uneasy thoughts made him sigh deeply. He sat up in bed, feet dangling out of the warm quilt. His stiff knees, he felt, were slowly relaxing. 'Those who have nobody to look after them, have their God to protect them,' he thought aloud. He slipped on his slippers, picked up the dressing gown from the chair and went to the washroom.
After a while when he pulled the chain, he heard along with the gushing sound of water from the cistern, a bell ring. He thought it was the telephone ringing. In haste he came out of the bathroom. The telephone bell was silent. It was the milkman who was ringing the doorbell, because Sa'eed asked him to check on the day if he would need extra milk for his guests over the weekend. Sa'eed opened the door. There was the dwarfish milkman standing in a black pullover with milk bottles in his hand.
"Good morning! How many do you need, Sir?"
"Good morning! As usual, just one bottle, guests are not coming."
" Oh! I am sorry. I bet you were looking forward to them coming. "
Sa'eed just shrugged his shoulders. He didn't care whether any guests came or not. After delivering the bottle of milk, the milkman left. For a long time, in the calmness of early morning, he could hear the sound of the small milk float receding in the remote distance. After putting the milk bottle in the fridge, he went back to wash and shave. While shaving, his agitated state of mind led to carelessness.
Grazes with blood droplets shone on his wrinkled cheeks.
" Oh! You old fool," he uttered under his breath and dried and cleaned his cheeks with tissue paper.
After a wash, he picked up his daily newspaper from the front door of the house and came to the kitchen to cook his breakfast. After a while the smell of coffee from the boiling coffeepot filled the house. When his wife was alive almost every weekend they used to invite guests. Everyone always appreciated the aroma of the imported coffee from various countries and the pleasant fragrance of the perfumed oils burning on the burners. Every one felt a prevailing sense of serenity and equanimity in the atmosphere of the home. They used to say to them, "Your house is always so welcoming and smells so wonderful. It makes us feel better just being here."
" Please do come agcun, " Lucy, his wife and Sa'eed would reply together.
Biting on the crisp toast, and sipping hot coffee, he glanced at the daily newspaper. The date on the newspaper, the ninth of the month, startled him. It was the date when four years ago, his wife departed from him forever. Since then, snow, rain or whatever came, he always went to the grave of his wife on that date of every month. He always took a bunch of chrysanthemum, the flowers she loved.
" Oh! My stupid absent-mindedness, how come I forgot that today is the ninth of the month, an important date," he cursed himself, quietly:
Outside the kitchen, on the flowerless cherry-blossom tree the morning mist was slowly clearing. The recollection of his son came flooding back to his mind. He could not restrain himself, and rang him as soon as he finished his breakfast.
"Hello, Ra'ees ,'
"Hello! Dad. You've woken me up too early in the morning", Sa'eed heard the sleepy voice of his son.
"Son, last evening I waited for your call. Are you and your family coming to visit me today?"
" No, Dad, I do apologise, I was very late last night. It is not possible now. I have to attend to a number of things here at home. The firm I am going to join insists on an early joining date. I am sorry, I cannot make it now."
"Just for a day. It would be good, if you could make it today, together we could visit your mother s grave."
"Well Dad, you've been visiting mum's grave on your own for a long time. If I'm not with you today, it won't make
any difference." There was a subdued anger in his voice. He did not like his father's emotionality.
Sa'eed was stunned. For a few seconds he did not know what to say. He gave Ra'ees every opportunity to develop
his own personality, respecting his feelings and the differences between them. He felt uneasy and regretted that he tried to exploit him on the pretext of his dead mother - a sort of emotional blackmail.
"It is OK. Just tell Ruth to keep in contact with me and
bring the children here whenever possible."
"Yes, when she wakes up, I will tell her. But you know, Dad, she is scared of driving on the motorways. Why don't you come across to visit her and the children? You know the children often talk about you." Ra'ees did recognize the lurking love in his father's voice appealing for visits.
"Well, I am not exactly young. Travelling does not suit me any more."
"Well, Dad, you do go on your holidays every year. And Manchester is not far away." "I will see what I can do. Give my love to Ruth and to the children. Do write to me regularly from America. Bye-bye for now."
And there was the click of the telephone receiver.
For his holiday arrangements Sa'eed used only those companies which had considerable experience of handling senior citizens' holidays. He no longer enjoyed the experience of visiting new people and new places. Even going a little distance away from Scarborough was a struggle. Visiting his daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Manchester - was a lot of trouble. Apart from travelling a distance of more than 130 miles it also involved going to the bank to draw cash, ordering a taxi, asking a favour from neighbours to keep an eye on the house while he was away. Further the prospects of waiting for his daughter-in-law to wake up to make his morning tea and he, baby-sitting while she was away on errands, were enough to kill the desire to visit his son's home.
While drawing back the curtains from the windows, Sa'eed was muttering to himself, "How stupid of him to suggest that I should go there. The children should visit here, the parental home, and know that there is another home where they are always welcome. Here they would enjoy grandfather's hospitality. Here they would see the childhood of their father. Here they would see the photographs of their late grandmother and here they would come to appreciate their family history."
Sa'eed had been living in England for the last five decades. The English saying - An English man 's home is his castle, he often felt exactly fitted his situation. Before he became frail because of his old age, he always decorated the house himself. He also built the boundary wall himself. Inside the house there was the 150 year-old family piano of his late wife. There were wooden tablets hanging on the walls engraved with names of Al'lah and Rasool (SAW) and ka'li'ma-e-sha'haa'da. There were table-lamps with beautiful shades and beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceilings of each room. All these decorations along with the special fragrance were peculiar and distinctive to his home.
After marrying Lucy,Sa'eed's Pakistaniand and Indian friends distanced themselves from him. And after coming to know that Lucy celebrated Xmas and went to carol singing in the church, his non-English acquaintances stopped visiting him. Even then Sa'eed and his wife had plenty friends visiting them. They use to arrange fund raising events both for local charities and international charities. In and around the annual melas and car-boot sales they helped on the stalls for handicrafts made by the disabled at Scarborough. Besides these activities, before retirement, Sa'eed ran a newsagent's shop in the town. Every evening, except Saturday and Sunday, it remained open up to half past eight. Apart from newspapers, it sold the best cigars, cigarettes, and the best films on video at competitive prices. After being appointed a Justice of Peace as a measure of his good character, and after handing down judicial decisions in minor cases, he genuinely felt a part of English society. But after the passing away of his wife, hardly any one came to call. He felt himself enclosed in his own home. All the decor seemed unattractive arid lifeless,
since there was nobody to appreciate it. Memories did not bring any happiness to him because the person - his late wife who filled them with colour and joy - had left him forever.
Had Sa'eed not decided to visit the grave of his wife, his day would have been plain boring. He would have spent his time reading the newspaper and watching TV and napping in between.
For a long while, somewhat disinterestedly, he turned and glanced through the pages of the newspaper. Then he got up to dress to go to the cemetery. He went to the front door in the hallway to check his post. There was nothing except junk mail, ads., fliers and a few receipts of paid bills. He threw them in the waste paper basket. He dressed himself in one of the finest suits from his wardrobe, put on his overcoat and set off for the cemetery.
The house he lived in was in a quiet suburb of Scarborough. The cemetery was half a mile away from his home. He always walked that distance to visit his wife's grave. The day was overcast with clouds. There was a gentle lazy rustling of dry fallen leaves blowing in the coolish breeze. On his way to the cemetery he passed through the small shopping area, from where the road led straight to the cemetery. He went into the shop where he bought his weekly provisions.
"Good morning Mr. Sa'eed." The lean shopkeeper, dressed in blue overalls and coal grey trousers, was well acquainted with his customers and greeted him with a smile. Without waiting for an answer from Sa'eed he added, "it's not a nice day, isn't it?" His lady assistant too, with an artificial expression, made a remark, as for her a day without the sunshine was a wasted day.
"Good morning. Perhaps the sun will be out and shining by the afternoon," said Sa'eed with a slight smile. "The morning could have been worst. Anyway what can I do for you, sir?" asked the shopkeeper.
" I would like to have a bouquet of chrysanthemum, please."
"You see, all these flowers are from the best nursery in the town." He knew well where his client would go with the flowers he bought on that particular date every month.
After paying for the flowers, Sa'eed came out of the shop to walk to the cemetery. The shopkeeper watched him going for a while and then said to the lady shop assistant, "Look at him. Straight as a walking stick. See the way he walks with long, dignified strides. It seems as though he never had any mishaps in his life."
"To survive one has to be strong. How old he could be? I reckon 60 or 65, but see how smart he is. That is the type of man any young woman would go for without thinking of
about the age difference - young women idolise them," answered the lady shop assistant.
Sa'eed, unaware of their opinions, kept walking, his feet treading on the dry yellowish autumn leaves on the pavements, passing through the row of trees with green moss their trunks and songbirds hopping among the bushes, with their feathers close to their bodies. Occasionally a falling leaf from the tree would fall on his head or his neck, and that
reminded him of the soft touch of his wife's hand.
He walked through the rows of graves until he came to the foot of his wife's grave. The grass between the white stone edging of the graves was still damp from last night's rain. The fallen leaves from the now leafless naked cherry trees, sycamores and maples on the periphery of the graveyard were blowing everywhere over the graves and pathways. The air was rich with the rising smell of dampness from the earth and bushes. He felt acutely the pain and sorrow of the departure of his wife - an utter loneliness. The rustling from
the silky dresses of hers, the soft noise from her softly treading feet on the hall-floor - all that lived in his memory was gone. With trembling hands he placed the bouquet of fresh flowers in the middle of the grave. He put the dead flowers from last month in the plastic bag he brought with him. For a long time he recited Faa'ti'hah for the salvation of the soul of his late wife.
Lucy and Sa'eed, wife and husband,subscribed to their own religious faiths during their marital life. If people with different faiths can exist side by side in this world, they
maintained, then why could not two people with different faiths live under the same roof? They believed that different faiths could be respected without being in conflict with each other. Lucy and Sa'eed kept their pledge of respecting each other's faith without ever having a conflict. After a long recital of Faa'ti'hah, he looked at the grave with deep sorrow
and intense grief and said under his breath "Lucy, nobody now visits our home, not even our own son. When you were there, everybody was so happy to come to visit us". With unbearable grief, he cried and his eyes were wet. At that very moment, a bird flew away from the nearby shrub.... a sign of pulsating life in this universe, characterised by change, action as well as the beauty of sound, where happiness and sorrow co-exist.