Abdul, the Book Seller

Nitin Chaudhary

“You make the money, I will make a life” Abdul told me off.

I had got a new job and was moving to Mumbai. I had come to him with the news and a carton of Navy Cut cigarettes that he preferred. He took the cigarettes and didn’t offer the usual stool to sit. Instead of congratulatory words, the unkind words tumbled out. I had half expected his reaction.

Abdul and I chatted about books, boxers, bikes, painters and stories and histories, and why Arundhati Roy would never write a novel again. 

“Everyone has only one story to tell. Perhaps, that was hers.”

Abdul was an old painter who sold second hand books at Nehru Place. He was old and frail but still had philosopher’s words. I found him when my love for books was still fresh and someone had guided me to his book stand, which was simply a piece of cemented floor that he occupied. Time was a less exploited resource those days. So while he sketched, sitting on an old stool by the side of the pavement where crows shat on his collection of books, I read for free and listened to his ramblings, some were old and oft repeated, and some were surprises wrapped in most innocent of tones.

Before leaving, I scribbled down my new phone number and made him put it safely in his cashbox. Unsuccessfully, I attempted to extract a promise from him to call me once in a while.

That was four years ago. 

Yesterday, I got a call that Abdul had died. He was found lying in a pulseless heap on the top of his books late at night. The cops were informed and they could find only one contact information: my number scribbled on a yellowish paper in the cashbox. They offered two options: either to take the body to crematorium, or if I would like to take custody.

A feeling uncannily similar to the one accompanying unpaid debt overwhelmed me. I had discovered Camus and Rushdie at that roadside pavement; Abdul had goaded me into reading them, and soon after I ashamedly devoured every single book that they had written. 

I don’t remember anything else much, except of the matters requiring immediate attention – packing essentials, booking ticket, and making urgent phone calls.  

Next afternoon in Delhi, the taxi crawled slowly towards the Sabzi Mandi mortuary. The July heat evidenced itself as anger. Everyone curses in July; cursing someone’s mother becomes the new mother tongue of Delhi. I was angry too; maybe it was a mistake to come all this way to bury someone I hardly knew. As the taxi inched forward, I thought of turning back to the coolness of the airport lounge and wait for the evening flight back home. But I have been too used to my own idea of being a nice guy, of doing the right things, and always lacked a certain boldness required to act indifferently. 

I had never been to a mortuary. It was late afternoon by the time I reached the gates of the mortuary. While I looked for constable Malik, the one who had called me, a Delhi police van drove up. It brought a body of an unidentified man. The mortuary staff brought out the body, and placed it on stretchers to wheel it in. For a place of the dead, the mortuary was surprisingly busy. A young boy came in with water and tea to sell. I asked if he knew where to find the constable; he looked around lost. An hour passed by, and just around when I was beginning to worry about the evening flight, constable Malik found me.

“Sir you will have to come inside and take the body yourself”, constable Malik informed me unceremoniously. Noticing my discomfort, he offered “or you can pay one of these boys who can bring out the body after you have identified it. They can also take it to the burial place, all for a fee”.

Brokers in the mortuary, I wondered. 

On my tacit approval, constable Malik summoned a young man, dressed in white overalls, with a wave of his hand. A passage of the mortuary, bright with white lights, took us to the cold storage. There was still a chance that I might make it to the flight if I hurried things up.  Constable Malik walked ahead lazily. I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven...". One of the cold storages was drawn open. I shut my mouth tightly, holding my breath, and hoping against hope not to let any smell of death enter into me. This was such a wrong decision, I kept repeating to myself, as if a constant reminder will make this wrong right. 

Inside the cold storage there were more than 60 bodies, in a place for 30; some were lying on the floor, some on stretchers, a few were of women. I hurried across till I chanced upon the thin, almost shrunken body of Abdul. I indicated to constable Malik, who amidst all this terror on senses was standing calmly behind me. 

It was five in the evening by the time the body was brought outside. Examining the body from a distance, constable Malik, wondered, “How do you know this poor beggar, sir? What about his family?”

“I don’t know him well. I just bought books from him”, and no I had never cared to ask Abdul about his family. 

Constable Malik looked incredulously at the foolishness of my statement, as if I was joking. 

“It’s difficult to explain. Anyhow, can you please help me with the burial? I would really like to catch the flight back tonight”.

“That would be very difficult. We first need documents to be signed and it is not easy to find a burial place nearby. I suggest you take this body to Dakshinpuri burial in Kalkaji”.

By the time I was done with the paperwork, I had given up hope to catch the flight. I was calmer now given that there was no place to rush to. The constable, for a convenient ‘service charge’, had helped arrange an ambulance. 

“And one last thing sir” he mentioned just when I sat in the ambulance, “there was not much left at the place where the body was found, some books and this key that we found in the cashbox along with your number”.

I had never seen the key before and slipped it inside the pocket. 

Later that evening, once Abdul’s body was buried as his religion determined, though he never cared to believe in one, the familiar feeling of calmness reappeared. I even felt certain guilt for all the transactional posing I had done in the last few hours. 

Relieved, I took an auto rickshaw to the same garish bar at Okhla, where Abdul used to gulp cheap whiskey, while I sipped beer.

“Knowledge should be free, you see”, Abdul used to reason why he sold books at twenty rupees each, “I make people read Chekov, Dostoevsky, Kant at a price they can afford”.

“Why even twenty rupees, Abdul and how do you see yourself paying the bills” I would counter the senile talk from the old man.

I felt the cold key in my pocket. It was a single key with a worn out red plastic rim around it. I kept fiddling with it while sipping my drink. I had an idea that Abdul lived in Greater Kailash across Paras Cinema, for I used to drop him there in the evening sometimes. He would get off the bike and walk on the periphery of the district park. The key could be to his shanty. 

Somewhat drawn by the desire to roam around Delhi streets late at night and relive the bygone years, and somewhat driven to find out Abdul’s shanty, I took an auto rickshaw to Greater Kailash. The evening retained the warmth from the day but the streets were strangely quiet, as if everyone had run into the fold of their television sets. I walked along the edge of R Block District Park. 

A young cycle mechanic was alone at work. 

“Listen, do you know Abdul”, I took a shot in the dark, “the old man who had a shop across from here?”

He looked at me questioningly. I excused and moved forward. 

“The book seller! Abdul, the book seller?” the mechanic shouted in recognition after me.

The mechanic walked me to the front of the small shack that Abdul had. It was desolate with a lock in front. A lock, to which, I had the key. Maybe it was meant to be left unlocked, I wondered. And then went on to open it.

The metal door cranked open into darkness. I shuffled around looking for the switch. Instead my hand bumped into a stack that fell with a thump. I flicked open a small plastic lever of a switch protruding from the wall, the ones found in very old houses. A dull yellow light settled on the room. 

Books, thousands of them, lay in front, stacked on top of one another, all the way to the ceiling, in hardcover, and in paper, well bound and torn, of the authors known and unknown, they all lay there, waiting in anticipation to be picked up, perhaps waiting for too long.

That night, while the darkness reigned outside, Abdul’s legacy, the mildly lit room fended bright. I know what I have to do tomorrow and perhaps in the days to follow. I sat in the centre, pulling books from the stacks, dusting them and packing them in heaps, preparing to pass them onwards, just like Abdul would have liked.

Teresa and the Birds Inside

Sonia Gutierrez

Sitting uncomfortably at the DMV, Teresa looked around to see if anyone else could hear the noise above her, but strangers went about their business, filling out paperwork and waiting their turn. Grasping a clipboard, Teresa heard the sound hovering over her like unannounced screeching owls coming at her. That’s what surprised her; owls hooted at night not in broad daylight. It was almost closing time—one hour before Teresa would have her last opportunity to renew her desperately needed driver’s license that would expire in a few hours.

Teresa asked the red-whiskered man in a black leather vest sitting next to her, “Excuse me Sir, do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” asked the stranger.
    
“That sound,” replied Teresa pointing up with her index finger.

“What sound?”

“You don’t hear that?” Teresa asked the man as she looked up—unable to identify where exactly the noise was coming from. The man shook his head. In that undecorated large room, no one seemed to be bothered by the distinct sounds except her.

With her ears exposed to the world and fidgeting in her chair, Teresa filled in her name. Where she was writing her first name, she crossed it out several times with black ink to write her last name, Carrion. Slowing down to make sure she didn’t make anymore careless mistakes, she wrote Teresa in bold letters. Above her, the commotion kept tugging at her, and Teresa wished she could zero in on the noise above her and silence the disquietude that kept interrupting her train of thought. 

Noticing her impatience, the man glanced at her ticket. 132B. “It’s not too bad,” affirmed the stranger as he rose to his feet and walked away. Wide-eyed, she nodded silently without peeping a word. 

When she saw the TV screen barely announcing 115B, Teresa realized it would be excruciating for her to wait for a long period of time. It was the first time she had noticed it publicly. The mechanical syncopated noise, which seemed to be coming from the air conditioner, kept interrupting her concentration. It was unbearable. She tried to remember her mother’s date of birth as the sounds entered her mind incessantly. March or April? She questioned herself and wondered why only she could hear the noise. Trying not to call attention to herself, Teresa attempted to shake the noise off with quick sudden jerks, by moving her head from right to left several times. But she could not shut out the noise. 

In that humming room, Teresa didn’t know if she could stay or if she should run out of the building. If she stayed, what would happen? And if she left, there could be serious consequences. A fine if a police officer pulled her over. The towing of her minivan. And John. 

In the privacy of her home a few months prior, a restless Teresa straightened her long hair several times before she left the dinner table when her children’s mastication had become intolerable. Their little sparrow mouths emitted grotesque sounds that repudiated her. She longed to still have her childhood ears when playground ruckus had comforted her, but Teresa was now thirty-five and married with three children. Whatever she was feeling had onset inconveniently at the DMV. At home, the caws from afar entered her bedroom. What had once sounded like the cooing of doves soothing her had become unbearable caws of crows circling in on her wherever she went—to the bathroom, to the living room, to the bedroom, and to the kitchen.

Several times Teresa had worn earplugs at the dinner table, where the family ate together but separate with an invisible glass window between them. At least, she could see their little faces which swooned her with joy. But recently, John and the children’s chewing electrocuted her senses. She hadn’t told anyone but John. He shrugged it off, saying it was an exaggeration. “Just tune it out, Honey,” he’d suggest. 

In Teresa’s day to day life, she worked, cleaned, and tended her children, except when the uninvited sounds invaded her mind, which seemed to appear more frequently. What could she do? Perhaps, the sounds had always been there, but for whatever reason she hadn’t noticed them before. Something had happened to her. But what?

What would people say if they found out? 

She looked up at the screen, 122B. While sitting in a mustard yellow chair, Teresa heard a woman’s robotic voice escape the loud speaker, “Now serving 75C at Window 7,” and the noise running together. And then unexpectedly, from a young girl, who sat next to her immediate right, Teresa heard the annoying snapping of gum. Teresa, of course, could not tell the girl to stop—there were no signs at the DMV that read: “Chewing gum is not allowed.” So Teresa picked herself up and quickly moved thirteen rows away.

In her new seat, Teresa could still hear the air conditioner’s malfunction, but at least she could no longer hear the loud snapping of bubble gum and thick saliva. How had it come to this? Why hadn’t she noticed it before? She didn’t know what to do. 127B. Five numbers away. She wanted to desperately run out to the sanctity of her vehicle.

Straight-faced at the DMV renewing her driver’s license, Teresa looked fine. There was a bit of tremor in her eyes, but nobody knew. Nobody suspected the noise—only she could hear—was eating at her. 

The first words came out unequivocally and impulsively. “Fuck this place!” She didn’t make it past the black tape as she attempted to reach for the front desk, where her right arm waved her application frantically. “I need my driver’s license today!” Teresa yelled not recognizing herself. “Fix your damn air conditioner!” she added frantically. 

Startled and confused, people sitting close to her gave Teresa a pitiful look condemning her public misconduct. Running towards her, a tall, stocky security guard grasped her right arm tight and dragged her outside, where Teresa’s screams sounded like caws. The birds inside had finally broken free. The security flung her small-framed body through the double glass doors, where Teresa would no longer disturb the peace. About five-hundred feet away, distinct sirens and flashing red, white and blue lights approached the setting. In the parking lot, standing on Teresa’s head and shoulders, owls, crows, and sparrows screeched at passersby. 

Things Go Wrong

Mary O'Shea

We were in Abbotsbury Close for the longest time, me, Gonz, Coffer and Prof. Don’t ask me how long because one thing I could never do is count time. Long, short, something in between, is all I can say. We shared places before. We were used to one another. We got lucky in Abbotsbury Close. Comfy, too comfy. It took next to nothing for them to turn us out. We were on the footpath with none of our stuff and they were already hammering planks around the windows. Five rough, strong men with gold teeth, hard hands and heavy boots: they knew what they were doing. We didn’t stand a chance.

‘It’s not fair,’ I said, as we slunk away. ‘We were nicely settled.’

‘All our things,’ Gonz said.

‘My old blue dressing-gown,’ Prof said. 

‘If Coffer had been there instead of gone out we might’ve had some chance,’ Gonz said. As if!

‘They must’ve been watching,’ I said. ‘We must’ve got careless.’

We prowled around in search of an empty, keeping an eye out for Coffer. It wasn’t going to do him any good to stumble into gypsies in the middle of the night. We ended up in the porch of Our Lady of Victories and settled in there, heart-sick. 

‘In the morning,’ Prof said, ‘we’ll go around to Bayswater. Get food and a wash. Then we’ll make a plan.’

‘I’d like fried bread,’ I said. ‘With sausages, bacon and two eggs.’

Although, in all honesty, food comes in second to the satisfaction delivered by a slug or two of the hard stuff, no matter how ravenous you’d be. And the hit is so much stronger when you’re hungry.

We didn’t sleep much, not used to being so exposed any more. Prof coughed and wheezed in the dark, Gonz occasionally moaned ‘Fuggin’ gypsies’. Though it was only September, a chill came down on us that seeped into the marrow. By daybreak we were stiff as corpses. I went around the side for a leak and when I got back it was clear they’d been talking. One thing I’m never wrong about is when people’ve been talking. 

‘So, when are we going to Bayswater?’ I said.

Gonz looked at his shoes. Prof tilted his head to one side and showed his few remaining teeth.

‘Whitechapel,’ he said. ‘Better facilities.’

‘You know I can’t go there,’ I said. ‘Not after the last time.’

‘They don’t turn anyone away.’

‘Except me.’

‘You did lose the head completely,’ Gonz said. ‘They have a place to run. You can hardly blame them.’

‘Yeah. Helping you rebuild your life with dignity.’ I tried a smile to take the sting out of it but I knew my mouth wasn’t making the right shape. ‘I’m going to look for Coffer,’ I said, pride kicking in. ‘We’ll find ourselves another place.’

Leaving them there in the porch and setting off on my own I half expected them to shout after me that they’d come to Bayswater, only joking about Whitechapel. But they didn’t. I took one look back as I went. To any stranger they’d seem an odd pair. Prof knows everything and can do nothing. Head in the clouds. Gonz knows nothing but he can pick a lock, change a lock, bypass a fuse-board, coax a few coins from smartly-dressed women and such like. He can spot an easy target at a hundred paces. They’re a perfect match. Like a married couple: different, but necessary to one another. Hand and glove. 

It made no sense to go down Abbotsbury Close but I couldn’t help it. I thought I might find Coffer asleep under a bush along the way but there was no sign of him. I don’t know what I’d’ve done if the gypsies came out. I wouldn’t’ve got far with the ache in my belly and thoughts of a feed of spirits driving me to distraction. What I’d’ve liked was to firebomb the place, with them inside. If only I had a firebomb, and the balls to do it. So long since I’d been this hungry. So long since I had to rummage in a bin in order not to fall in a weakness. I must have gone soft, is what I was thinking. 

I carried on into the park. The sun was properly up now and it had the sharp, sad feel of those days before winter comes. Not the season to be without a roof. I rested on a bench a little way from the gate. This not being my usual time of day, it was an eye-opener to see the amount of people out running, walking, crossing the park with briefcases, more with babies in buggies and kids by the hand. Pet dogs strutting their stuff for adoring owners. Being a dog wouldn’t be the worst fate in the world. Although Prof says rats are the master race. He says they’ll outlive us because they’re just so much smarter. I think he envies them for their teeth as much as anything. It’s terrible when you lose your teeth.

As I sat there, I felt the old weight pressing down, the thing that pins me to wherever I am and won’t let me up. Nothing short of a bunch of gurriers can shift me when that comes on me. I’d like to sleep. I’d like to drift off, away from the gypsies, away from Prof and Gonz gone off on me, away from the reminders that stick onto me like cobwebs: more feelings than memories.  All I’ve failed at. The desperate, on-going run of it. Forget is what I’d most like to do. Prof has a word for it: oblivion. But you don’t get that on the NHS.

When I did eventually move I went slowly, every bit of me aching, forcing one foot after the other. People coming towards me gave me space. I didn’t have to look to know that no eye met mine. I started thinking of porridge: the way we had it at home with the brown sugar and a splash of cream. Then birdsong made me look up. The branches were too thick to see where it was coming from but I went on looking and walking. After porridge it was schoolbags on backs and a race to the car for the front seat. Then I was falling. Something hard against my forehead. 

 

I’m not sure if it’s the sounds or the smells reach me first but I know instantly where I am. Head throbbing, I open my eyes to a glare of cleanliness. I could have done without this: in bed, wearing green paper. There’ll be questions, rounds of them. Does it hurt? Where does it hurt? How badly does it hurt? How did it happen? What day is it? How many fingers? The hopeless well-meaningness of it. I’m tempted to tell them: Life sucks, is all there is to it. Usually, I don’t say that because it does no good to make them mad, I’ve noticed. Usually, I have them laughing. That’s something I can do. You’re a hoot, they often tell me. And that soothes me for a bit.

They come with their clipboards, two of them: a headscarfed girl and a black man. They’re quietly-spoken, respectful. Her accent isn’t too bad but I can’t make out a word of what he says. New to it, obviously. I tell them I’m a bit hazy about what tests I’ve had and when. The last time? Don’t ask me about time, I tell them. They write everything down. The headscarf is silk, I bet. Nice colours. Money there. But she’s young: plenty of time for things to go wrong. Although I have to say it’s unlikely, looking at her. Some people you just know are always going to be sorted, short of a tsunami coming.

Next I get trolleyed off for a brain scan.

‘You gave yourself quite a whack there,’ a friendly doctor with serious acne tells me. They get younger and younger. 

The scan is negative.

‘So I can go now?’

‘You’re suffering from concussion. Plus, we’re waiting on blood results. You’re a bit jaundiced. We’ll get you back to the ward and organise some tea and toast for you.’

They hold a conference about me in the corridor. They always do that, just at the edge of earshot. It never takes long. Nothing good comes of it. It used to happen at school, teachers at the classroom door or in the head’s office: What’s to be done about him? And my parents late at night, thinking I was asleep: What are we going to do with him?

An older doctor leads the team back to my bed. Shepherd with his flock. Frowning at his sheaf of notes, he says he sees I’ve given my address as Abbotsbury Close. He looks straight at me, much as to say that’s the least likely thing he’s heard in a while.

‘Until yesterday,’ I say.

‘And now?’

‘I haven’t any place yet.’

He jerks his head at the team. See? Like I said.

‘We’ll keep you under observation for another twenty-four hours,’ he says. ‘And organise somewhere for you to go when you’re discharged. Short-term, that is.’

‘If I could have the tea and toast,’ I say, ‘I’ll be moving on. I’m fine now, just a bit hungry.’

‘The blood results won’t be back until tomorrow. We’ll have to see those before we can discharge you. You may need treatment.’

‘What I need is my clothes,’ I tell him, a shake coming in my voice. 

‘I insist,’ he says, ‘that you remain overnight. We have a duty of care. We can’t let you go today.’

I swing my legs out and stand on the floor, leaning against the bed.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘I’m perfectly all right. I am. I’m not staying in.’

‘Well, we won’t be responsible,’ he says. He flings it out like a curse, his mouth going tight and mean. Then he turns on his heel, followed by the sheep in a straggly line. They hate losing, doctors do, I’ve noticed. 

A ward orderly comes: own best customer in the kitchen, judging by the number of spare tyres on her. She angles the bed-table around and puts a tray on it. There’s a pot of tea, a jug of milk, a bowl with sugar. Four slices of toast, four little squares of butter in foil wraps. I take my time eating, putting off the moment when that hole opens in the middle of me and I get half crazy for a drop of something. If I pick the right place I could make up to a fiver before the offies close. Time was, I didn’t mind facing into a shelter or an outreach team or a hostel. Not today though. Too much of a gap between me and explaining myself. That’s what comes from being settled. You go soft. The Underground will have to do until I find another empty. Although without Gonz and his magic touch with locks it could take a while. And everywhere you go there’s gypsies. I’d like to know where Coffer is. He’s not reliable but two is better than one.

Before I get my clothes back there’s a form to sign. I have to get out of here no matter what, so I sign. 

‘There you go.’ I hand the form to yet another doctor. ‘You’re off the hook now, even if I get eaten by giant bugs between here and the front door.’

He doesn’t even smile.

They think they know what’s best for you. They think they have the answers to everything.

 After waiting ages, I press the bell. I tell the nurse who comes along that I’ve signed the freedom form and I’m ready to go only for the clothes. 

‘Yours are in a state,’ she says. ‘Will you take something from the ward?’

‘Dead man’s clothes?’ I say.

‘Not so far as I know.’

She comes back with a whole new outfit. Not brand new, obviously, but clean and not mine. 

‘Will you put them on for me?’

Put them on for her. It wakes me up to her accent and her voice: a softness.

‘Irish?’ I say. It’s out before I can rein it in.

‘Galway. A few miles outside Salthill. And you?’

‘Never been to Salthill.’

‘But where are you from?’

‘Waterford.’

‘Whereabouts? My brother lives in Waterford.’

‘It was a long time ago.’

‘Don’t you go back?’

‘No reason to, really.’

‘What happened you?’

She’s standing by the bed waiting for an answer. She’s not the first to ask. What I usually say is: I wasn’t lucky enough to meet a gorgeous girl like you, was I? That makes the young ones go beetroot. I usually tell them I got one doing-over too many, and that my parents had no clue. I don’t ever mention how I came across trouble like a dog comes across bones. They’d harden up at that. Just the clueless parents, the way I never got the hang of school, the bullying. They believe it, take it all in. They nod their heads. Maybe I had a hope that something in the telling would bring a tear to someone’s eye, cause a turnaround. I don’t know. Now I’m a juggernaut going downhill. There’s no turning.

She’s young, only a trainee, by the look of her. Young and innocent. And still a bit tender. She’d be a fine warm hault. It wouldn’t stop there, of course. I’d want to go all the way.  So often I did it when I was half cut. The waste. I look at her properly: good legs, sound tits, straight teeth, freckles across the nose. Her life ahead of her. Some man she hasn’t even met will see something in her he’ll want more than anything he’s wanted before. And he’ll get it. And not be grateful enough. And she’ll be disappointed. I’ve had women like her in the past but if I had one now I’d never let her go. I’d be so grateful. Nothing to lose, I take the risk of looking right in her eyes. They’re blue, with little flecks of brown, the whites so white. Perfection. I wonder what life has in store for her. 

‘Things go wrong,’ I say. ‘Who ever knows why?’

‘There’s a programme for getting people back home. All paid for by the Council. You’ve only to apply.’

‘Do they have time-travel? ’Cos boats and ’planes won’t do it. I’ll tell you, love: home is long gone.’

She shakes her head. I can see she’s thinking I must be proud or stubborn or something along those lines. She imagines the same small country that bred her and wants her back is holding its arms open for me. You need a bit of living behind you to understand how home can be gone.

‘It wouldn’t do you any harm to apply anyway, would it?’

‘What’s your name, love?’

‘Orla.’

‘Well, Orla, I need to get dressed now and take myself out of here. See, there’s friends waiting for me.’

She brightens up at that, pulls the curtain around the bed and says she’ll see me before I leave. I shut my eyes to tuck into my memory her name, her smile, the sound of her voice, those blue, clear eyes. I unfold the dead man’s clothes and get ready to go.