By Farah Ahamed
You stand barefoot in the dark, looking as far as you can through the large living room window to the bus stop on the opposite side of the road. You glance at your watch. The small, silver dial tells you it is six thirty-three. The 247 is late. You see the bus draw up, stop, then rumble on again. You strain your eyes to discern the figure waiting to cross the road. You go to the fireplace and light the candles and incense sticks on the mantel piece. You listen for footsteps running along the pavement of your flat, and a knock on the door. You wait a few minutes, but you hear no footsteps, and no knock, only the sound of passing traffic.
You sit in front of the fireplace on the Persian rug which has the tree of life design in green and pink. The plush weave of the silk threads feels soft and smooth. You cross your legs and open the music notation book at Raag Marwa. You look at your watch, seven minutes have elapsed since the last bus.
You read; “The mood of this raag is defined by sunset, and the sudden onset of darkness. The effect of this melody form on the listener is to create a feeling of anxiety at the setting of the sun and solemn expectation of night.” You mark the leaf with a red ribbon.
You switch on the electronic tanpura and adjust the position of the harmonium, near your knees. With your left hand you release the metal latch on the side of the instrument and with your right you pump the bellows. You pull out three stops on the front panel. You play a scale of notes on the black and white keys and continue to pump the bellows. You listen to the monotonic drone from the tanpura and play Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa. You shift the harmonium to the right so that your elbow rests on the frame. You fiddle with the knob on the tanpura and play the notes again.
“Saima?” Adeel shouts, from the next room.
“Are you teaching?”
You close your eyes and play the notes on a higher scale.
You sing “Sa, Sa, Re, Re, Ga, Ga.”
The vibration of the music and the sound of your voice makes your body quiver. You inhale until your lungs are at full capacity; then you exhale and chant the word Aum, in an elongated form; “Auuum”. You do this five times, to the note of Sa.
You forget everything, except your breath, your voice and the music.
But then you remember. You look at your watch, it’s six fifty-five.
You turn a page in the book. “Raag Marwa is an unusual raag melody because its tone is not harmonically well defined; and this imbalance gives it its peculiar character.”
You play the next note on the scale, “Ma, Ma, Ma.” The repetition calms you. You sing the whole scale, “Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa,” ascending and then descending, four times over.
The candles flicker. The winter sky is dark, you shiver. You switch off the tanpura and push away the harmonium. You get up and go to the next room.
Adeel is lying in bed in his striped grey and white pyjamas. He is facing you. His eyes are closed. The covers are thrown off. On the small trolley by the side of the bed, the grilled cheese sandwich and fruit salad are the way you left them earlier. The glass of orange juice is half empty.
“Please eat something,” you say. “You haven’t had anything all day.”
“I’m not hungry.”
You lean against the door frame and wait. He doesn’t open his eyes. He doesn’t move.
“I made it especially for you,” you say.
“I’ll have it later,” he replies.
You count to thirty. He doesn’t move. In the corridor across from the bedroom is a mirror. You catch your reflection. You see yourself. Your face. Your hair. Your neck. Your ears. Your mouth. Your eyes. You think this is not you.
Who is this woman? Her eyes have grey shadows. Her face is thin. She is greying at the temples.
You feel a chill. The curtains rise and fall, there is a strong wind outside. You walk across the room to the open window. You shut it and draw the curtains.
“Leave them alone,” says Adeel.
You open them again.
You gaze at Adeel. His shoulder blades protrude through his pyjamas. His back and knees are bent so that his body is curved like a foetus.
You take a beige cashmere shawl from the wardrobe and drape it around your shoulders.
You stare at Adeel. He is in the same position. You want to say, “Look at me, standing in front of you. Acknowledge me. ” Instead you walk to the door, dim the lights and go back to the living room.
But for the faint glow of candles, the living room is dark. You look at your watch, it is ten past seven. You stand by the window and watch the rain falling on the window pane. The rain falls fast, but it is light and you can’t hear it. Across the street you watch the bus stop. A bus arrives, stops and then leaves. There are people waiting to cross the road, you can’t see who they are. You wonder what time he will come. You know he will.
You move away from the window and sit on the rug. The flickering candles throw shadows across the room. You place your left hand on the black and white keys and your right on the bellows. You hum some notes, and move your fingers up and down the key board. You play the scale ascending and then descending. You play Raag Marwa, instinctively. You play it on a lower scale and then a higher scale. You start to sway. You play another tune, in the same tune, at a higher pitch. Your voice and body are in harmony, a slow, steady pulse and rhythm. You play the melody at a lower pitch. The mellow bass fills you with dread. You sing, “Dh Ma Dh Ma Ga Re Ga Ma Ga Re Sa.”
You sing continuously for twenty- five minutes.
“Saima,” shouts Adeel.
You stop singing. The tanpura drones monotonously. You switch it off and go to the window. He has never been late before. The rain has stopped, the window pane is wet; it is difficult to see the street. You hear the sounds of traffic. You wipe the condensation on the window with the corner of your shawl. No one is at the bus stop. A car drives by, its headlights shine straight at you. You blink. You stand at the window and look at your watch. The next bus is due. No bus comes. You watch the road. You think you must have waited ten minutes. You look at your watch, you’ve waited only three.
You go back to Adeel.
“I’m glad you ate something,” you say. The sandwich is not on the plate. You lean against the door frame.
“If you like we can try doing something different tomorrow,” you say. You take a step towards the bed.
He opens his eyes. His pupils are dilated and his mouth opens. His face trembles. You lean closer. You feel his breath on your face. “If you like we can play bridge or go for a walk. We can do whatever you feel like.”
He raises his hand as if to caress you, but then he drops it. His gaze moves and he looks at a point beyond you.
“Did you shower today, Adeel?”
His eyes widen, he nods. His hand gropes around the bed for the duvet. The grey bristles on his chin stand out against his dark skin. You see black hairs in his nostrils and ears, and white hairs in his eyebrows.
“Please get out of bed. Watch some television, watch the news,” you say.
He shifts his head on the pillow. “I’ve been listening to BBC World all day.”
“Should I help you shave?” you ask.
“I don’t need to shave,” he replied. “I’m not seeing any one.”
You want to say, but I’m seeing you. Instead you say, “Can I invite a friend over?”
“I don’t have any friends,” he replies. “I don’t like any one.”
You want to shout, ‘For God’s sake, like someone, go somewhere, do something.’ But you say, “What will you do now?”
His gaze has shifted to something behind you. You move away from the bed.
“Leave me alone,” he says. “Let me do whatever I want. I want to do nothing.”
When you hear that, you want to walk as fast as you can to the kitchen and open the door to the fridge and put your face right inside, and scream, until the cold air stings and burns your face, and it turns to ice so that you feel nothing. But instead, you push your hair away from your forehead and roll up the sleeves of your white linen shirt. You notice that your black linen pants are creased at the knees and the pink nail varnish on your toes is chipped.
You want to say, “Look at me, I’m talking to you.”
But you say, “You don’t know what you want.”
You turn to the bedside table and pick up the small yellow plastic pill box with compartments. Each one has a letter. M, T, W, T, F, S, S. You flip open F, and empty the contents into your palm; a white tablet, a half red and half yellow capsule and grey triangle.
“Leave them there, I’ll take them myself,” he says.
You want to say, “I don’t trust you. I know what you did last week. I found the tablets hidden under the leaves of the potted plant in the bathroom.”
You hold out your open left palm.
He raises his hand as if to take them, but drops it.
You pick up the half glass of orange juice. You silently count from one to six.
He props himself up onto his elbow. You raise your palm to his face. He opens his mouth, you tip the medication in. You hold the glass to his lips. His face trembles, he blinks several times, his lips close around the rim. He takes a sip. You wait and take the glass to his mouth again. He takes another sip.
“Did you swallow them?” you ask.
He opens his mouth and his tongue is pink with white and cream markings. His teeth are yellow with coffee and tobacco stains. Three of them on the left side of his jaw have metallic fillings. He shuts his mouth, pulls the duvet to his chin and closes his eyes.
You look at your watch, it’s eight o’clock.
You think of the bag in the boot of your car and the airline tickets in the glove compartment.
He must come.
You want to cry.
You pick up the tray from the trolley. The sliced apples and pears are bruised and brown and the grapes are a dull bluish purple.
You want to scream, “What a waste. A waste of my time, of energy, of food, of money. A waste of your life.” Instead you say, “Can I get you anything else?”
Adeel turns in the bed and faces the other way.
You look at his striped grey and white pyjamas.
You want to shout, “Say something. Say you’d rather be dead. Say you hate your life. Say you hate me too. Say I should leave you. Say anything.”
Instead your voice is calm, and you say, “I’ll be back in an hour to check on you.”
The soles of your bare feet feel the smooth texture of the parquet wooden floor. The hardness comforts you.
“Where is Hafiz? Isn’t he coming today?” asks Adeel.
You almost drop the tray. You want to say, “Why do you care? What difference does it make to you?” But you say, “I don’t know, I expect he’ll come.”
“He’s very fond of you, isn’t he?” asks Adeel.
You want to say, “No, he’s infatuated with me, or maybe, he loves me; his fifty year old music teacher.” Instead you reply, “He has a good voice.”
“Law firms like to over-work twenty- seven year olds,” says Adeel. “He must have got held up at work.”
Your heart rate accelerates, “Maybe.” You want to ask, “How is it that you can be so cruel?” But you don’t. Because you’ve asked him so often and there is no answer.
You take the tray to the kitchen and put it down on the counter. You check your phone. On the shelf, near the recipe books, you see the red diary. You pick it up and turn the pages. You read the dates for Adeel’s appointments with all his doctors. The names of all the medications prescribed for specific times. Lithium levels in his blood on various days. You stop at the last page and stare at it. You shut the book.
Your throat feels dry. Your head is pounding. Your bag and tickets are in the car. You just need to pack the harmonium. Hafiz is late. But he will come. And then you will tell Adeel his doctor’s appointments are logged in the diary, his medication is organised in the pill box and dinner is ready in the fridge.
And then you can leave. You could leave now. If you wanted to.
You switch off the kitchen light and go back to the living room and sit on the rug. You cross your legs. You switch on the tanpura. The drone fills the room. Your right hand runs up and down the black and white keys, your left inflates and deflates the bellows. Nothing matters, only your fingers on the harmonium, and the vibration of the note. You play a higher note, a higher scale, a higher pitch.
You cannot do this.
You cannot play music, anymore.
You cannot sing anymore.
This moment of music and song means nothing. Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa means nothing. All these notes together in a scale mean nothing.
Raag Marwa means nothing.
Adeel means nothing.
Hafiz means nothing.
There is no harmony, no melody, no symphony. Only this. And now. This empty moment of forever. And you. You sitting here. You thinking. About Adeel. About Hafiz. About your life. You play the scale over and over again. You start to cry, hands flying across the keyboard. Mechanically. Frenetically. Tears rolling down your face.
No sound. No note. No song. No music. No word.
You cannot leave. You could. You must. Or you will die.
You play, “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa,” on the same scale, over and over and over again.
Farah Ahamed is a Kenyan lawyer with a Creative Writing Diploma from the University of East Anglia who currently lives in the UK. Her short stories have been published by Kwani?, Bridge House, Fey Publishing, and New Lit Salon Press. In 2014 her story ‘Zoloft for Everyone’ received a commendation at the Winchester Writer’s Festival, ‘1972’ was nominated for the Caine Prize for African writing, and she was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize for a collection of short stories. In 2015, ‘Red is for Later’ was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize and the Caine Prize for African writing.