Aamer Hussein ~ Short Fiction
You think you can see the plum tree from the window when you rise at dawn after a few hours of sleep. It’s only a few yards away from your door and if you make the effort – one step, two steps, ten steps – you’ll get there. After your tasks are done, you tell yourself. It may just be a blur in the mist. You sit down to delete old messages from your phone, clear caches, and answer a message from Lara. She dreamed of you last night, she writes. You haven’t spoken to her since you parted on a shrill note, months ago. You don’t know whether to expect a duet or a duel, but it is neither: between the formal lines of your exchange there’s a ripple of a tentative understanding.
Three of my friends died last year one after the other, you tell her. One, my childhood sweetheart, of tongue cancer, one after a series of strokes, and the third – well, her immune system was….
The phone rings: it’s a younger friend whose agent has rejected a collection of stories that three publishers turned down. All you can offer is cold comfort: Been there, done that, you want to say. You can hardly claim to be doing very well yourself. But he’s stuck in Lahore – flights are suspended because of border skirmishes – and he has time to talk. After 28 minutes of conversation you’re drained. 11:15 and that book you were meant to finish is lying open, spine upward, on the arm of your chair. You return to the laptop to complete the message you were sending to Lara. What you’d written is hardly a response to anything she’d told you. You delete the sentences, you start again, but the words don’t come.
It’s nearly 12 when you finally put on your shoes and leave the house. One step, two steps, twelve steps – and you’re at the plum tree. It’s in full bloom, pink-white blossoms pointing to the sky or tilting to the earth. It only blooms in February, for a few days, but till the flowers wither and fall it becomes your favourite companion. The sun’s in your eyes but your body knows the moves: curve hip to the left, mobile phone aimed at the tree, curve shoulder to the left, bend knees: and you’ll have the images you want, though they’ll always surprise you with an unusual pattern, an unexpected trick of light.
There’s a message on your phone as you walk back laden with the day’s shopping, from Alam, a young friend you wrote to during your sleepless hours. What is platonic love, you’d mused: recognising potential and keeping a distance? Or leaving intractable spaces around the other, while you leave yourself open to invasion? Is there always an element of the unspoken, the unrequited? (Once you’d loved Lara with a love that she called true; at times it was a blue fire, at others like summer rain. Across absences and distances. It was a bodiless love of a kind you’d only known as a child when you were far away from mother, father, uncles and grandparents. Even when she loved another man and then another your love remained, now a still lake, now a pile of embers. Then one day she flung it in your face. And there was nothing left but a rocky hollow in your entrails.)
Alam, as always, uses your words as a diving board for his own reflections. That’s what you like about your exchanges. Any kind of relationship, he writes, requires trust. According to my perspective, when selfishness enters, it is not even a relationship; the world becomes meaningless when someone deceives you, it doesn’t make sense, whatever sort of relationship you lose.
I was cheated of money once, you type, by someone I trusted.
When someone breaks your trust it’s worse than being beaten, Alam types. You know what I’d like - he switches tone - is to be a tree, to give shade to the weary - come rain, come shine. Abu Bakr Siddique, peace be upon him, once said he wished he could be a tree, or a leaf or a branch of it, to help those who need my shade, rather than knowing I will go to heaven.
Look at this, you respond, sending pictures of my tree. I will call it by your name.
I will be a tree, he types, and goes offline. He often disappears mid-sentence; you wonder whether he retires into reverie, or into his Cancerian shell, tired after reading all night and sitting in classes all morning, he even falls asleep.
Your book is waiting. But you return to the laptop to answer Lara’s message.
As long as you breathe, you type, it’s easier to fight back than to give up or let go. You know you’re not really writing to her. You don’t know who it is you’re writing to. They come, they go, these loves and losses – do they trickle away, drop by drop, or do they freeze? And if there’s a thaw, what depths of reflection remain?
Let your book wait. Now, looking at the sun through the open window, you think of how you watched the moon grow for nearly thirteen days, from slender curve to burgeoning globe, and how one night it hung whitely over the leafless trees and when you tried to capture it the moon hid behind a pinkish cloud. And you’re thinking, as your eyes close, about legendary trees: the palm tree that offered Mary its fruit and its shade, and the tree at the limit which has on its leaves the names of those about to die, and the tree of paradise, and the almond and the cherry you wait for eleven months a year, and as sleep overwhelms you, you think that the plum tree offers no shade but how lushly it blooms, and how in your photographs it always appears to be so much taller than it really is.
Born and brought up in Karachi, Aamer Hussein studied for two years in the Nilgiris, India, before moving to London, aged 15, in 1970. He worked in the now defunct BCCI, took a degree in South Asian studies from SOAS, and later studied French, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. He began to publish short fiction, reviews and articles in journals and anthologies in 1987. His first collection of stories, 'Mirror to the Sun', appeared in 1993, to be followed by three further collections – including 'Insomnia' – and two novels, 'Another Gulmohar Tree' (2009) and 'The Cloud Messenger' (2011). '37 Bridges and Other Stories' came out in 2015, and his latest work is Hermitage (2018). He writes in both English and Urdu, still lives in London, and travels frequently to Pakistan.