Sunday 11 February 2018

The Middleman

by Alyson Faye

lemon tea 

I gorge on the scents and sounds of the market since I am forbidden to eat ‘street food.’ Heat ripples the surrounding air; lengths of sari material drift lazily over our shoulders as we stroll through the narrow alleyways. We are scrutinized; objects of interest.
We must appear a strange trio. Mama in her second best pearls, carrying a parasol; me in my best white linen, both so pale skinned and our dubash* -Hommajee. Taller than Papa, with coffee- coloured skin and a wild moustache. To my seven-year-old eyes he’s the image of a pirate in a picture book I have.
Papa’s posting has uprooted us from the green fields of Farnham, Surrey to this hot, exotic country humming with its own strange rhythms. Papa is away all day, ‘working.’ At dinner he says Grace then reads his papers in silence. Mama has instructed me not to disturb him with my childish questions. So instead I track down ‘Jee’, who is Papa’s “fine fellow” and his “right arm.”
In the bazaar a young girl slips past me. I feel her fingertips stroke my hip then slip into my pocket. She beckons me to follow her deeper into the maze of stalls. However, when I take a step forwards, Jee blocks my path, shaking his head sternly. “No young sir.”
“Why?” I ask. I am not prepared to give up just yet. I am the master here.
Jee is silent. He stands staring at me, his face still. Frowning. I cave in, resenting the small stand off.
“Come on Edward. Don’t dally.” Mama calls. Then I hear her cry out in anger.
“Get away from me! Leave me alone!” She knocks myriad skinny fingers away from her cream linen dress. They leave grubby stains. Her face is contorted, twisted into fleshy folds.
Jee appears at her side in a moment. It is a trick of his. This effortless glide. Smiling, he clears a pathway for us to our destination. The rug emporium. We step from dazzling whiteness into a calming dimness. The owner, bowing all the while, brings us tiny cups, and stools, more suited for dolls. The thought causes me to giggle, fortunately only Jee hears me.
The rug seller offers us trays of candies, glistening ruby reds and honey coated. Oh the luxury of them! Mama shakes her head. I let my hand drop. I am allowed to eat only what Cook provides. I hover, my innards aching with longing.
Jee hands me a freshly baked biscuit behind his back, while he distracts Mama with conversation. Syrupy sweetness explodes on my tongue. Bliss.
The haggling over the rug becomes heated. Mama loves to barter. She makes daily raids on the local markets. It is all she does, except for playing bridge or All Fours and holding dinner parties where the ladies’ dresses remind me of the peacocks strutting around the grounds.
Jee guides Mama towards a larger rug; a woven mosaic of greens and blues. Its colours are those of cool waters. I dream of jumping into the furry tufts and lying face down. The price tag makes me swoon though. Papa is rich I believe, which is “a fortuitous occurrence”, in Mama’s words.
Jee whispers to Mama. They are the same height I observe. How strange. Papa is a tad shorter than Mama. The brim of Mama’s hat brushes Jee’s turbaned head. I gasp at the intimacy. Mama laughs at something Jee says, then she hands over a thick fold of notes to the shop owner who bows.
As we are leaving I glance over my shoulder and I espy Jee pocketing fresh handfuls of rupees. They overflow his fist. The owner is bowing deeply to him just as he had to Mama a few moments earlier. I am confused. Jee works for Papa. He is our servant.
Jee stares at me, then he puts his finger to his lips and shakes his head. Sticky heat sweat breaks out all over my body. I stay close to Mama on the walk home which I know irritates her. She keeps pushing me away a little distance. Jee whistles and hums a tune, but I don’t join in. Jee keeps glancing at me, trying to catch my eye. I ignore him.
Confusion bubbles up, making me queasy. My mouth fills with the syrupy bile of the sweetmeat. Guilt soaks through me. I have disobeyed a direct instruction, aided by Jee. I cannot eat dinner and ask to be excused. Papa does not glance at me when I leave the table.
Later that night when I am sick Mama blames the heat. I say nothing. It is easier with Mama to let her believe what she wishes.
* interpreter

About the author

Alyson writes mainly flash fiction and short stories. Her work has appeared on Tubeflash online,on the premises,Three Drops journal; Raging Aardvark's new anthology 'Twisted Tales' and Alfie Dog. Some of her stories are available as podcasts. Chapeltown is pleased to have published her Flash Fiction Collection Badlands.   

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