Cigarette Ash [September 2010]

Ibrahim Waheed “Kalaavehi”

cigarette smoke pencil
Open air must be obviously good for the coffee. Or perhaps for the crisp cigarettes that always seemed to appear like magic, clothed in virgin white between caressing fingers. But then, the poor things only seemed to glow for a while in careless hands as they slowly shortened and burned. Finally, the ash would blow away so insignificantly. As if anyone cared.

Obviously, open air was perhaps good for words of love, hate, gossip and political intrigue. But, just like the ash, the fresh sea breeze blew the fragments of all those words away into the darkness of the night, where they finally rested in the dark spots made by the failure of street lamps and passing scooter headlamps to reach the mysterious depths of the night. Open air was what they preferred for a minimum half-night of mutual escape. As if someone noticed.

Oblivious, perhaps, to all banalities, they came in through the door of the open-air café, not quite holding hands. But to some people it could have been just that. The clever, more observant, the catty or the more gossipy allowed their minds to magnify this entirely false appearance. Under any circumstances or scrutiny, catty or otherwise, the couple’s complete ease with each other was patently obvious. They were totally relaxed. No tensing of muscles or jumping away from each other’s personal territory when they moved too close for public comfort, by design or almost by accident. No one would notice any incongruity.

Out of the twilight zone where the best of them dwelled, a waiter’s form took shape in front of them. A smile, evidently reserved for the familiar and good tipper, lit the way to one of the more desirable tables right at the back where privacy was one of the tastier items on the menu. According to the house ritual reserved for the best customers, the flourishing of the faux-leather clad menus, the ceremonial presentation of the chilled bottle of mineral water, the traditional lighting of the little oil lamp, everything took place as expected. The man and his fairer company for the evening had nothing fishy to notice or even mildly frown on.

Fish and chips, that essentially plebian and humble, newspaper-wrapped take-away from the United Kingdom becomes a delicacy in the East, perhaps because it is so alien to a culture of rice and curry. Served with an assortment of boiled or sautéed vegetables, tartar sauce boat on the side, gleaming cutlery placed just right, it created an aura of sophistication on the unwary table that particular evening. For the special couple of the night, it became almost a hallowed offering, served lovingly to special customers by smiling expatriate waiters looking for a healthy tip just after the decaf, the virgin-white cigarettes and the check were served.

“Lovely meal!” whispered the young lady and laughed, for no apparent reason. Dressed in a creation of virgin white and mysterious black, probably made in one of the finest fashion houses in Bangkok in anonymous tribute to Yves Saint Laurent, she was perhaps more about being apparent. As she chewed a particularly succulent piece of wahoo, obviously caught that very day, she thought, “I am glad I agreed to go out with this guy tonight! He is a good catch. Not only is he well-heeled. He is reasonably well-mannered, obviously knows how to treat a young lady, is not too talkative, and hopefully doesn’t attempt to seduce me on the first date. This is the kind of guy I must cultivate if I were to have a good dinner every night!”

“Made lovelier with your presence, dear.” The man was dressed very casually in light denim shirt and chino pants, not hiding his real age which was past the forty mark. He was also thinking. “I hope that any of my friends don’t notice me with this cheap little trick. Her lack of class is beginning to show too close to the surface. Oh, that grating laugh!!! But, well, at least I have some floozy to pass the time with tonight.”

“Why doesn’t he get married to someone his own age and settle down?” A woman seated in the shadows whispered cattily to her friend, pulling her maroon skirt down over spindly legs that could remain bare with decency, or out of range of a vascular surgeon’s roving eye for that matter, only in that light. Both of them were more his age and were already losing a too-obvious battle to hide it even from each other, despite judicious subscription to the house of Avon. “It is a disgrace to even watch. Every night, he comes in here with a newer, younger thing on his arm. Yes, it is definitely a disgrace!”

“You mean you tried and failed? Just like that high-and-mighty, real-diamond, secretly-drinking, holy- jane over there once did?” Maroon skirt’s friend, who could have been a description-twin of her friend, needled her friend. Obviously they knew more about the subject of their conversation than was immediately apparent to the Bangladeshi waiter, who was hovering expectantly nearby, hoping for a tip, since older persons usually tipped. “Look at her sitting there in the darkest corner. I bet she is trying to wake up her pickled brain with loads and loads of coffee, God knows why at this time of the night!”

The supposed coffee-loading, real-diamond subject of the cats’ latter attention did sit in the darkest corner of the café. She was a special, valued customer as well. She had noticed the man in the denim shirt and chino the moment he had walked in with the white and black knockoff. However, as real life would have it, neither her brain nor her decency was pickled. It was just good old fate, and the forced circumstances of her extended family, that had put her in what was traditionally called a pickle of the figurative kind. She also had something to say. But not aloud. For, heaven’s sake not aloud!

“I cannot forget you just like you cannot forget me. I am thankful that you are not on drugs or in a bar somewhere drinking yourself to sleep every night. It is OK, my love! I know that that young lady will go home happy and that you would go your own way later on tonight, not perfectly happy, but at least with a bit of reality forgotten… till maybe tomorrow night, maybe? Go in peace, my love!” She whispered, just loud enough for the air to hear. Just enough for the fragments of those words to blow away with the cigarette ash and into the darkest corners of the night.

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  • jaa  On September 20, 2010 at 4:39 am

    Beautiful 🙂

  • M  On September 20, 2010 at 8:13 am

    Nice piece. 🙂

    In the last para, would it read as “Go in peace” ?

    • ldive  On September 20, 2010 at 1:36 pm

      Yes! Thank you for reading, thank you for the comment, and above all, thank you for pointing out the typo. Now you have a share in this!

  • silentfingers  On September 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    Our traditional values are certainly changing. The shallow woven ‘joli fathi’, the surreptitiously eyed ‘badhige faraathu andhiri gandu’ and the ‘kaddevi’ posessed ‘banbukeyo gas dhah’ often obscured by ‘fendaa mathee holhiburi’ had gradually been replaced by what you have skillfully described here. I gather, now we are only more ‘open’ 🙂

    What I love about this piece of work is how subtly yet honestly you have touched the core of our present society. 

    I wonder how many of those ‘high-and-mighty, real-diamonds’ are forced to spend long, weary nights before returning home with burnt out souls, like that of those cigarettes. I suppose fate does funny things to those who are forced to sleep in hunger. And to those lovers and wives who once knew the art of keeping a man happy. 

    • ldive  On September 21, 2010 at 2:00 pm

      “‘kaddevi’ posessed ‘banbukeyo gas dhah’ “! Wow! Gives me ideas…..

      You and I agree that “fate does funny things to those who are forced to sleep in hunger”. Believe you me! Some people are forced to sleep in hunger for too long, perhaps due to those “lovers and wives who once knew the art of keeping a man happy”, say “Enough is enough!” and walk out into the night, and sometimes into ‘open air restaurants’, often with a ‘cigarette’ for company.

      Would you blame them?

      • silentfingers  On September 22, 2010 at 2:07 am

        Oh, who am I to judge or blame? Aren’t we all warriors at war with fate? Only the battle fields and enemies differ. The least I could do is pray. Pray that we all come out as heroes.  

  • silentfingers  On September 20, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    By the way, dear Waheed, you are very good company to be in during the serene hours of dawn. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

    • ldive  On September 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

      “A votre sante!” [And that is a glass of my favorite drink raised in your honor. Some people who would usually have trouble prising their tongues out of their cheeks would hasten to call it a French toast!]

  • mysterystar  On September 21, 2010 at 3:45 am

    Love it! Inquisitive for the next tale.bless you….. and thanks.

    • ldive  On September 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      Coming soon, mystery….

  • shifa  On September 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    it seems so real to me …..very nice story specially the ending. good job waheed

  • curious_mind  On October 4, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Nice story..i liked the line “privacy was one of the tastier items on the menu” =D

    • ldive  On October 4, 2010 at 2:28 pm

      God bless you! Thank you!

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