Prose

Heartbreak, You Know, Drives A Big Black Car

 I would sell

all I own and have and built

for more time

with you.

— Tyler Knott Gregson

“FALLING slowly / Eyes that know me,” he stopped. They all stared at him. The café was full and now they all stared at him and even the waitresses who would bustle about and pay him no heed stood in the silence, staring. He tried to clear his throat. It didn’t work. He looked at the mike and felt the weight of the guitar on his knee and all the patrons and waitresses staring at him and felt the sweat collect on his brow. A group of rowdy teenagers walked into the café. Everyone turned to stare at them. They stopped. But that was all he needed and by the time they had turned back, the stage was empty and only the angled mike stood in the spotlight — a little off-centre — alone.


He sat on the bench outside, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. He smelt her perfume on the breeze before she’d said a word and he wondered how a smell could do that to you.

“That was quite a performance!”

The cadence of her voice hadn’t changed. The lilt he remembered so well that he often caught himself thinking in it; it hadn’t changed.

“It was embarrassing.”

“I don’t think it was embarrassing.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Liar.” He smiled at her.

“Hi.” She smiled back.

“Hi.”

They looked at each other like that for a while, each watching the other watch them, drinking in the ravages of time — a line here, a wrinkle there.

“So,” he asked. “Where’ve you been?”

She considered this for moment.

“Tangier,” she said, narrowing her eyes. He could hear the teasing in her voice.

“That was one time, okay? The one time I play a Dylan song for you and —”

She laughed just then and he wondered how a laugh could do that to you.

“I was just kidding!” she said.

“Sure you were.”

“I was! I was! It’s just the way you sang it. So … poignant!” And she began to laugh all over again and this time he couldn’t help but join her.

“Hey, we both did some stupid things back then, okay?”

I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

They watched together as a car drove by, the afterglow of its tail lights fading into the darkling twilight.

“Do you remember all those promises we made?” She asked.

“I do,” he said. “I do.”

“Me, too.”

“Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “But sometimes it seems like it was yesterday and now its morning and I’m awake now — I’m finally awake — and I’m brushing my teeth and going to college and walking up to the quad and there you are with that stupid grin, waiting for class to begin.”

“I wasn’t waiting for class to begin.”

“No?”

“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

“You’re sweet, but I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it was worth a shot,” he grinned.

She reached for the guitar lying between them and plucked at the strings.

“You used to say something to me when we were kids.”

“I said a lot of things,” he smiled. “Most of them to impress you.”

“I know,” she said. “And it worked!”

“Until it didn’t.”

“Yes,” she sighed.

“Hey, listen. Don’t, okay? Tell me something else. Tell me something — okay, what pseudo-intellectual bullshit did I say to you?”

He could tell she wasn’t convinced but she relented and he saw the hurt as it cleared from her bright eyes.

“You told me,” she said with care, as if each word meant something different to her. “You told me: Listen! One day we’ll graduate and we’ll be old and we’ll never see each other again and never feel this way again and it’s weird, isn’t it, how life is learning to say goodbye?”

She looked at him looking at her, remembering.

“You also said how much you hated Mondays.”

“Fuck Mondays!”

“You said that, too!”

“You know, I had this dream last night.” He looked off at the lights on the buildings.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I was late for this stupid party. I didn’t want to go. I was sleeping in the dream and I didn’t want to go and then my Dad came into my room and woke me up. “Aren’t you late for that party?” he said. And I could tell he wanted me to stay — I could just tell — and I didn’t want to go but I got up just the same and I got dressed and I left and I didn’t say goodbye.”

She gazed at me for a moment with her hazel eyes.

“Why didn’t you say goodbye?”

“I don’t know. I woke up then and I ran downstairs and then I remembered. So I walked up again and sat on the roof till dawn.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s funny though, isn’t it? How we never do the things we want to do? We never do those things.”

“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his hand. He felt her skin touch his and the hurt and the pain and the years melted away and he was fifteen and in love for the first time.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine.”

“Liar.”

“Hey, that’s my line!”

“Too bad!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“God, I missed you.”

“Liar.”

“No, seriously. I always miss you. Even when I’m with you, I miss you.”

“Well, maybe it’s not me you’re missing.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good boy.” She intertwined her fingers with his.

“What are the chances, though?” he asked.

“Of what?”

“Of this. Of you. Of us meeting again.”

“It’s crazy,” she smiled.

“You’re crazy.” He smiled and he knew, just then, that he’d never let her go. Not ever. Not again.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Nothing! C’mon, let’s get some coffee.”

“I hate coffee!”

“I know, I remember,” he winked.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Ice-cream?” she asked.

“Only if you’re paying,” he said.

“What happened to chivalry?”

“Feminism happened!”

“You’re horrible!” she said. And, laughing, they walked back towards the café.


He woke with a start and his hand reached out to touch the sheets beside him. They were cold and he remembered and it took him a few minutes to compose himself.

When he could breathe again, he sat up, pushed the sheets to one side and went to the sink. The water was cold and fresh and when he saw his weathered reflection staring back at him, he smiled.

“Who’s the best?” he said, aiming a punch at the mirror. It was something he did in the mornings when she’d walk in behind him, hair messy from just waking up, cascading to one side like a waterfall that you’d chanced upon in a clearing in the woods and it was all yours, the curtains waiting to be parted.

“Who’s the best?” And she’d loved it and told him it was adorable — that he was adorable — but now she was gone and it wasn’t morning it was night and he felt silly and old and so he stopped.

He stared at himself for a while and then switched off the light and walked up the stairs to the roof. The old acoustic lay against the door and he picked it up, took it outside and tuned it under the stars.

He played a chord and it was hesitant and unsure and the sound died out soon under the vast night sky. He tried again.

“Spent all night / Tryin’ to remember your face,” he stopped. He tried clearing his throat. It didn’t work. His hands shook as he took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. He laid the guitar down on the dusty floor and lay back in the dusty chair and closed his eyes, trying to remember her face.

They wouldn’t find him till Monday.

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Prose

Sempiternal

Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.

Help me to find

the heft of these days.

That the nights

will be full enough and my heart feral.

Jack Gilbert, I Imagine The Gods

SOME days the sun was too hot and the breeze that blew in from the ocean would pause for the siesta and on days like that the heat rose off the streets and the heart yearned for a home it had never seen.

On days like that I’d fire up the old clunker with the faithful ’70s radio and shift her into first then second, up and up, smooth as I could manage, until fifth and we were roaring down the causeway and the little kids who splash the summer away in the sewers would laugh and jump and wave and I’d honk twice and wave back.

Most days I’d park her up at that lane under the big old banyan and crank down the windows about three inches each side. I’d push the seat way back and sip at the milky coffee that was always too hot to gulp down but sweet enough that you tried anyway.

It’s hard to say why I chose to park there. I guess it was the perpetual autumn more than anything. Even in the doldrums of summer the lane was fresh and clean and quiet — the air a little crisper, the sun a little softer, the entirety of it drenched in magic.

I’d sit there for hours drifting in and out of sleep. As the sun set into the sea, dark figures would pass me by heading for the kabristan. Sometimes they’d pause outside my window and I’d hear them whisper to me and it grew cold and I’d wish just then that I had brought her along because she was warm and alive and then I remembered and was quiet.

There were big trees all along the sides of the lane and the pools of light from the lamp posts would end up dappled across the dark asphalt after making their way through the leaves. It was then that I’d carefully crank up the windows, lock the car and make my way up the lane towards the kabristan.

He was waiting for me by the entrance.

“You are well?”

“I am.”

“You do not look it. You are well?”

“I am.”

“You do not look it. Your eyes betray you. But come. See what a good job I have done. Rosewater every day, just as sahib ordered.”

“Thank you.”

“I am sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Shall I leave?”

“Yes. No, wait. Here. Thank you.”

“Thank you. You are too kind. Are you sure you are well?”

“I am.”

“Alright. I should be on my way. The rains will come soon. They are forever flooding the graves downhill. It is madness. You are lucky, sahib, to have a spot up here. The rains will come soon. But they will cause no trouble to a spot up here. Alright. Allahafiz.”

“Khudahafiz.”

I watched as the caretaker walked off down the narrow path. Soon he was only a dark blur weaving between the graves. He was a good man. He’d built the little bench next to her and there I sat. The scent of rosewater carried each time the wind blew from the sea. And I remembered.

I clambered up the rough face of the outcrop and reached the top where the wind never stops and looked for the sunset and dusted my hands off – once, twice – on the faded blue of the jeans. And the sunset was beautiful and warm and the air was cold and fresh and I saw the city’s skyline, silhouettes softened by the fog and the distance. And, as the city lights flickered, my thoughts turned to a girl who lived in a castle by the sea. And whether, if ever, she thought of me.

The breeze blew another gust my way. And I could have sworn I heard a familiar voice mingled in the scent of rosewater.

“Hi,” it said. “I missed you.”

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Prose

Life is a Caravanserai

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,

How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp

Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

Omar KhayyámThe Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám

ONCE upon a time, there was a great empire. The empire was so vast that its ends were shrouded in mystery and barbarian lands clung to its edges like rotting vestiges. Sometimes, a few armed bands would venture near the borders — like unruly children — craving acknowledgement. But for the most part, the empire lived in peace and harmony.

Now, there was a righteous king who ruled this land and one day he decreed that a great road was to be built from one end of the empire to the other. Since the land was as wealthy as it was large, this presented no great fiscal challenge, merely a logistical one. Soon, the dedicated — though rusty — bureaucracy creaked into action and, reluctantly, the first stones were laid.

Many moons waxed and waned before the final stones were — equally reluctantly — placed, but the job was done and the great black road stood resplendent as a testament to the magnificence of the empire.

The king, however, saw that though the road had made trade infinitely easier, there was still one problem left to tackle. The poorer merchants couldn’t afford to travel, not because the road was taxed but because the cost of the journey included food and lodging. The king was a good man and so he decided that the funds of the state would be best applied to easing the difficulties of his subjects, in the hopes that they would adore him, instead of merely being indifferent. Consequently, the first inns were constructed; a hard day’s journey from each other by the side of that great road.

Now, finally, the bureaucrats had done something truly marvellous. These inns, or caravanserais, were nothing like the crowded, claustrophobic cities that dotted the landscape, rife with crime. No, these were small and warm and safe, filled with the promise of good food, good wine and a soft bed under the stars.

As evening approached and the ancient fires of the sun cooled, the weary traveller would see the caravanserai beckon to him, like a gentle mistress, whispering of sleep and sustenance. And as he lay down, gazing up at the stars, he would ponder on the swirl of milk spilled by a divine hand, carving a path across the night sky. Did he look at that far, far older road and wonder where it began, where it led and who had traversed its many paths, planets and mysteries? Or did his weary eyes wander, just before sleep overtook them, to the far end of the caravanserai and the battered doorway of Tomorrow?

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Prose

One Last Sunset

A BOY. A girl. The flaming passions of the setting sun reflected in their young faces.

He turns. Sweet salt air. A hint of vanilla. Her dark eyes meet his.

Eternity wraps herself in a moment.

In that tangible instant, he sees another face from another time. A strikingly similar face from an incredibly, indescribably distant time.

And he is filled with the anguish of the ages and the regrets of humanity clutch at his heart.

Just as his forefathers had before him and just as his sons will after he is dust, the boy sees — in the depths of his love and in the wells of human emotion — that fatal flaw, that transience which is the curse of humanity.

The boy shivers, imperceptibly, as a warm hand slips into his. And he watches quietly as the dying sun slowly slips beneath the dark, dark horizon.

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Prose

Sandcastles

A LITTLE girl sits in the warm sand. The wind pulls at her hair, widening her big, bright smile as she beams at the sun and the sand and the waves. She gets up and runs to the water, falling over herself in her eagerness to touch it. Laughing, she dusts herself off; nothing can dent that radiant smile.

The little girl wants to build a sandcastle. She sits near the water’s edge, patiently moulding mounds of pliant sand. Finally, she sits back, admiring her hard work. The little girl imagines how it would feel to live in a castle — a princess — mistress of a sun-kissed realm. She really, really wants to be a princess; just like those fair Barbie dolls she’s seen in those large, air-conditioned cars. But in her eager innocence the little girl doesn’t notice the waves pulling at her faded rags. She doesn’t notice until they’ve begun to devour her little castle. But by then, it’s too late.

She watches quietly as the waves tear down her castle of dreams. She wants to cry, to scream, but there’s dad in his little fishing skiff. He doesn’t like it when she cries. The little girl hopes he has some fish for dinner; she hasn’t eaten since yesterday. She looks at the castle again and, in a moment of sudden defiance, smiles as wide as she possibly can. She doesn’t need a stupid sandcastle. Her father sees her, laughs and picks her up. No one notices a little tear trickle down her little cheek.

Another wave breaks on shore, burying the remains of the shattered sandcastle.

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Prose

KHI

NIGHT. It’s hot. The power’s out. It’s damn hot. Can’t-breathe hot. You drag yourself out of bed and try swatting a mosquito that’s been pissing about your head for God-knows-how-long. You miss. He buzzes off; triumphant. The bloody bastard. Wait-a-minute. Only the females bite, right? You could make some sort of witty metaphor with that, something to impress the next girl you see, but it’s too hot. Too God-damn-hot. And it slides off the edge of your consciousness, vowing to piss you off later like a half-remembered dream. Like a f*cking mosquito. Blood-sucking bastards.

So you head for the mesh covered window, hoping for fresh air. It’s cool to the touch. But where’s that Karachi breeze? Damn. It’s like a prison: you can feel the fresh air but you can’t breathe it. The sky isn’t dark, even though it’s 12:51. Yeah, like The Strokes’ song. What-a-coincidence. There’s a sickly glow to the sky; the colour of an insomniac’s dreams. Again with the cheesy metaphors. You blame it on the claustrophobic heat and wipe the beads of sweat off your forehead.

The mosquito’s back for seconds; she wants it bad. In the distance, gunfire sounds and an ambulance wails. You see a kid walk down the street. He looks like shit. Looks like he hasn’t washed in a year. Must be, what, 12? Poor kid. Mosquito buzzes in your ear and you yelp. The kid stops. He looks up. Blink. The power’s back. Your stereo starts playing. Some jazz shit on CityFM89. Who the f*ck listens to jazz? ‘Cause the streetlights are on, you can the kid clearly. He’s still there. There’s something about the way he’s looking; you just can’t meet his gaze. But then the kamikaze mosquito dives at your ear again and you shut the window, turn on the AC and run to the bathroom to grab a can of Mortein. Stupid mosquitos. Too many of them. The bloody, blood-sucking bastards. They won’t know what hit ’em. Why the f*ck can’t they just leave you alone? You’ve never done anything to them, right?

Then you remember the kid’s stare and, suddenly, you aren’t so sure.

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Prose

Rome

First published in the Grammarian, 2012.

THE CAMPFIRE flickered, dancing like a nimble young girl away from the advances of the cold, biting wind. The grey-haired sentry pulled his scarlet cloak tighter around him. ‘Old friend,’ he whispered softly to the fire, ‘old friend once I burned with life too. I do not think I will be able to dance for much longer, as you do.’ He lapsed into silence, exhausted by the weight of his thoughts, and closed his eyes.
Gently, he caressed the coarse sand beside him. ‘You are rough,’ he said to the sand, ‘but I would be too if I had been scorched by the sun, every day since the creation of the world. Yes,’ he paused, ‘you are rough, but you are honest and pure and you only feel as you do because of the tough life you lead. You and I are not so different,’ he smiled.

And then something strange happened. Perhaps he feel asleep. Perhaps it was a mirage. Or a trick played by one of the djinn of the desert. But this much is certain that as the sentry blinked dreams from his weary lashes, his half-open grey eyes saw a dark shape crossing just outside the warm, safe halo of the flickering fire. It was darker than the surrounding night, and paused for moment, silent; motionless. Then it glided on, becoming one of the many unsolved mysteries of the desert that have been padding at the edge of man’s sanity since time immemorial and shall remain long after man is forgotten dust.

And the sentry’s eyes closed, tired from years of gazing at alien shores far from home, and he slipped into one of those strange sleeps of the body that tire the mind and pass the time and do little else.

And when he awoke later, expecting dawn, all he saw was the same dark night, blowing over infinite miles of dark desert sand. And he blinked, wishing desperately for the dawn to come, but the night only swirled tighter around him, blowing out his fire and tugging at his scarlet cloak. And then the old man knew that dawn would never come so he pulled his cloak tighter around him and closed his eyes and drifted into that sleep that rests the body and rests the mind and from which one need never again awake.

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