In a corner of our small sitting room sits my old man, sweating, mumbling in his sleep. He wears only an Indonesian batik sarong, a memento from his time in the souvenir business. On his lap is my brother Hanif’s tabby cat. We don’t have a name for it, it’s not like us to name living things other than our kind.
It’s raining and fat droplets patter in waves against the sliding windows. The purple walls of the house opposite ours appear runny through the panes, like an abstract painting. The wind wails in from between gaps in the windows’ aluminium frame. I close my eyes and listen to the voice of the storm.
My father coughs and when I put my hand on his forehead it seems his fever has subsided.
He opens his eyes, small and Indonesian, the whites a muddy yellow, the blacks softened to a milky grey.
“There’s a prickling in my throat,” he says.
“Let’s have some tea,” I say.
I enter the kitchen. It’s small but clean, with polished wooden cabinets that Hanif and I paid for the year before. The countertop is decorated with mosaic tiles in a gradient from lagoon green to sea blue. I put the kettle on the boil, grate some ginger and, spotting a stray can of tuna by the gas stove, decide to make sandwiches.
Something rubs against my legs: it’s the cat, she must have smelt the fish.
“No more, old girl,” I say, patting her on the head. She mewls.
Once the kettle whistled, I put the grated ginger into it along with four tea bags. That must be enough. Closing the kitchen door, I roll myself a cigarette and turn on the exhaust fan. The cat licks my toe and I stroke its back with my foot, tapping the ash into the sink.
Cigarette over, I take the kettle and put it on a tray with two cups and a plate of sandwiches.
“Here, I’ve put ginger in the tea,” I tell him, putting the tray on the table.
“Mmm,” he says, reaching for the cup, which shakes in his hand. “Have you been smoking?” He eyes me, brows furrowed. The stench of tobacco must have chased off his sleep.
“Have a sandwich, it’s tuna mayo,” I say.
“I tell you kids all the time, you won’t listen. You won’t know until something happens and then it’ll be too late.”
He nibbles at a sandwich.
“I haven’t had a smoke all day, dad,” I say.
“Till now.” He likes being pedantic, even at his age.
“Your mother died from cancer,” he says.
I think of my mother, all shrunken after therapy, a desiccated crone though she was only in her mid-fifties. It’s been a year since she died. My old man will bring her up sometimes; her habit, her diet, neither of which he liked.
“You’re young, Jamal,” he says. “You’re still young. Both of you. But you don’t realise what a gift you have. You have the greatest gift of all. Time.”
“No, you don’t,” he says, shaking his head. “People call you ‘brother’ on the road now. I was called that too, once. But time goes by and before you know it, they’ll be calling you ‘sir’. You won’t realise it until it’s happened. And then it’ll be too late.”
He coughs into his free hand. The cat jumps onto his lap and starts sniffing the sandwich. He strokes its head idly.
“I see you with no direction and it pains me,” he says. “Your youth will desert you and you can’t live the life you now lead, running off to places, working at your whim.”
“I want to see the world, dad.”
“Imagine if you’d invested that money in a business. You could have made something of yourself by now. You can see the world then. Then you’ll deserve to see it.”
“I might someday. Get something going, I mean. Just not now.”
“The window’s closing, Jamal,” he says putting down a half-eaten sandwich on the plate and settling into his chair. “You don’t want to be working at my age. Don’t be taken in by the world and its temptations. It’s not the Muslim way. Find something, find it now. While you have the vigour of youth. That’s all I ask.”
The vigour of youth. I don’t reply, focussing instead on my sandwich. Vigour. I don’t want to remind him that he’d lost nearly everything when his business failed. That he has few fond memories, scarce little to fall back on now to comfort him in his twilight years. I look at him, his eyes are closed, he has said enough.
Something he said resonates with me. The passage of time is almost imperceptible; one day, before I know it, I will be addressed as an elder as they do my father. As I sit there listening to his snores, the wail of the wind and the uneasy rhythm of the rain on the window panes, I’m gripped by an uncanny feeling; it’s as though my body is becoming frail and burdensome, like something vital is being sucked from my bones. I wobble up from the sofa, gasping. Black orbs crowd my vision. I bow as they do in prayer, hands on my knees, breathing slowly and deeply, and the feeling ebbs and my sight is restored.
I straighten up and have an overwhelming urge to flee, to go out into the world, somewhere I haven’t been, to taste and savour the flavours of some new place. It may be all right for my old man to have tried and failed, but that life isn’t for me. That is not how I want to end up. I know that much.
The cat meows, startling me. I bend over to give it a scratch under its jaw and sit down again, waiting for Hanif to return.
when in doubt, whisper non sequiturs.
Last edited by chippedmonk; 07-21-2018 at 11:55 PM..