Revolution was in the air. Mr Ahmed could feel it. He strode into his house and grabbed the phone. New found energy was pulsing through him. Adversity had brought out a strength he had forgotten he possessed. He punched the numbers from the form on his lap.
As the line connected, he nodded at Mrs Ahmed who was knitting in front of the television. A young voice answered. He started to explain the situation but was cut off by music on the other end. This was a delaying tactic to break his concentration, but he was focussed. A keen female voice replaced the music.
Mr Ahmed drew a loud deep breath. He explained that earlier that day he had received a Penalty Notice for parking his car without paying. But all he was doing was getting change so he could pay. She replied that he would have to write in. Mr Ahmed took another breath. He was not going to waste more time. He had important things to do. Their officials should be disciplined. He wanted an apology. The music returned.
He glanced over at the television. The news was on. Mrs Ahmed commented about a border conflict somewhere in Africa. The people caught up in the war were not getting food supplies. They had to queue for water. Mrs Ahmed remembered collecting water from the village well when she was a girl in India. Then came partition and…
An older male voice came on the line. Mr Ahmed was advised to act quickly or the fine would double. He replied that his human rights were being violated and the fine should be cancelled immediately. That was not possible. Mr Ahmed assured the voice that he would continue fighting. The struggle against tyranny began here. He put the phone down.
The news had broken for adverts. Sun, sea and sand; a travel agent was offering trips to paradise. Then an internet service provider showed how it could help children with homework, facilitate conversations to the other side of the world for next to nothing and be the most complete shopping mall. Mrs Ahmed commented that the world had changed since when she was a girl. Mr Ahmed jerked his head up and down to try and convince her that he was listening. He got up and went into the kitchen. He turned the tap, filled the kettle and looked in the fridge. There was no milk. Within a minute he was out of the door.
It was early evening. A grocery on the corner of the street was open most hours. Mr Ahmed walked in quick steps. He came to the short line of shops. Lights were on in the pub. He looked inside as he went past it. Two people were seated at the bar.
He had lived on that road for 20 years. He had taken those steps maybe a thousand times but had never gone in there. He came to the grocery and stayed outside staring at the vegetables on display. Someone pushed past him to get into the shop. He looked up then turned to the pub.
He walked over and opened the door. The barman clapped his hands once and tilted his head at Mr Ahmed as he approached the bar.
“What will you have sir?”
“Err, I will have..um..why not orange juice.”
“Orange juice? Certainly.”
As the barman poured the drink, Mr Ahmed caught his reflection in the mirror behind the different shaped bottles. A sudden panic grabbed at his throat. The brown-skinned old man looking back at him had no place there. He would gulp down the juice and leave. He paid and the barman resumed his conversation with two men sitting on high stools.
The door flung open. A woman’s voice boomed around them. “Hi everyone. Sorry, I’m late.”
The barman nodded. “No problem, Katie.”
As she breezed round to his side, one of the drinkers wagged his finger at her. “Poor Roger’s been rushed off his feet.” She looked around. “Looks like it, doesn’t it? There’s just you two and..”
She caught sight of Mr Ahmed. “Oh, hello.”
He raised his hand. Katie went about arranging the glasses. Mr Ahmed took a large swig of his drink and gave a little cough.
“All right there?” He nodded.
“Live near here, do you?” He waved in the direction of his house.
The man sitting nearest Mr Ahmed said, “You’re scaring him. That’s what you do to all men.”
She twirled the ends of her blonde hair. “Not the real men.” She turned her wide eyes to Mr Ahmed and patted his hand. “I don’t mean you, of course. I’m sure you’re a real man.”
Mr Ahmed nodded quickly. The regular laughed and turned back to his friend.
Mr Ahmed said, “Actually, I have not been to a pub for many years.”
Katie said, “Well, there’s not many better than this one.”
Mr Ahmed touched the rim of his glass. He looked up. “Yes, it is nice.”
She nodded at his drink. “Not good?”
He shook his head. “I do not drink alcohol. So, this is fine.”
“What about a tomato juice, with some Tabasco and Worcester sauce? I drink those sometimes.”
He frowned. “There is no alcohol?”
“None at all. I’ll do you one.” She stirred it all up and passed it to him.
“On the house.”
“You are very kind.” He sipped it and smiled. “It is good.”
Katie went behind the bar for a few moments then returned. She started sorting glasses. “I can’t wait to go on holiday. What about you, got anything planned?”
“I want to go to Pakistan, but maybe not this year.”
“That’s a long way.”
“It is my home.”
“One of my mates went to India, that’s near there. It was a place with a funny name. Gogo or something like that.”
“Was it Goa?”
“Yeah, that might be it.”
“I was born in India.” Katie looked confused. He continued, “Before independence from the British and the creation of Pakistan.”
“We ruled the world once.”
“I was a student leader in the Muslim League.”
“Were you now?”
“I shook hands with Mohammed Ali Jinnah.”
Katie pointed at Mr Ahmed. “He’s probably sitting in a pub the other side of town telling someone about the time he shook hands with you.”
Mr Ahmed burst out laughing. “Yes, you are right.” He wiped his eyes and drank down the rest of his tomato juice. “That was lovely.”
“Do you want another one?”
“No, I should go now.”
“The missus waiting for you?”
“You should bring her out.”
Mr Ahmed smiled, then turned and walked out of the pub.
A full moon had risen between the clouds. It shone onto Mr Ahmed as he walked in small steps back to his house. He unlocked the front door.
“Where did you go?” It was his wife from the lounge.
“To get some milk.” He traipsed up the stairs.
Mrs Ahmed was still knitting. She had been thinking about her husband. He was an odd man. Sometimes she had no idea what was going through his mind. When she was a girl she imagined men to be rough and commanding. This one was loyal but distant.
Her thoughts stayed in her childhood. According to her elder sister she was lucky not to have been killed as a baby. No one wanted another girl. They had a brother but the dowry from his wedding would not compensate the two payments for the girls’ marriages.
When she was 15 her parents heard about Mr Ahmed who was going to Britain. He seemed to have no family and dowry could be side stepped. So, they signed a few papers, paid for her passage to London and she met him there. They had a son. As he grew up he quarrelled more and more with his father. The boy became religious and left home. She had phoned him while Mr Ahmed had been out. She looked up at the ceiling and wondered what her husband was doing.
Mr Ahmed felt a headache coming on. He had almost stumbled as he went upstairs. He sighed to himself as he lay down. The patterns on the wall seemed to make a face.
He recognised the person. It was a teacher from the village school where he had lived during his formative years; someone who had watched out for him.
He felt glad to see the man again and smiled to himself as he drifted off to sleep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2006.