Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Russian

A short story By Muhammad Saad Ali

“Did you hear, Mr. Hanif, that the Richardson’s Residence is let at last?” said my maid, Ms. Wilson.


        “Do you talk of our neighbor’s, Ms. Wilson? No, I didn’t,” I replied carelessly, my eyes fixed on a newspaper.


        “They have sent a letter in your name,” she said, grabbing my attention.


         I kept my newspaper on a table near me and looked in her direction. I had tried to ignore her all this time, but she always had some way of drawing my attention towards her.


         She handed me this paper, folded into half. She had read the letter without my permission, and had the audacity to give it to me without the envelope. I didn’t want to start an argument with her, since I was too anxious to read the letter. It was written to the effect that I was invited for tea that evening, by Mr. Richardson. I was shocked. I decided that I would go to his house, but I couldn’t overcome how unexpected the invitation was. What was to come later was even more surprising.


         The Richardson’s Residence was a mansion, four times the size of my house. Ever since my first day in that quiet London town, it had been deserted until that day. As I walked through its garden towards the entrance door of the house, I wondered what this man might want from me. Failing to come up with a reasonable explanation, I told myself, I guess I’ll find out.


         The house inside was all about the old-British lavishness. Victorian, I observed. The rooms were large, filled with elaborate furniture, carpets crafted with Indian elephants, and huge paintings hanging on the walls. There were the usual portraits of women, and the naked Greeks or Romans. The room that I was taken to smelt of French perfumes. In one corner of this room was placed a shiny-black piano. It was their living-room. The place had nothing modern about it, because of which I couldn’t help staring at my surrounding.


         “Hello Mr.” said a voice from behind me.


         “Hanif,” I said turning to this man who seemed about sixty years old.


         “Muslim and Pakistani, excellent!” he said, “I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”


          I was already used to such British formalities and had found nothing more loathsome. Still I smiled at his acute guess. He was an obese man with huge bald head. He talked to me about business, Pakistan, Pakistanis, Islam, Jinnah and Benazir. I was not yet asked to be seated.


          “Oh, I forgot. This is my wife, Natasha,” he said, pointing his left arm towards a lady behind him.


          I had not yet noticed her, since she was hiding behind her over-sized husband. I was amazed at what I saw. She was a twenty-something girl, married to this ogre. A closer look showed her to be an extremely gorgeous woman. She was fair with thin luscious lips, platinum blonde hair, and had grey eyes.


           “Hello Miss,” I greeted. I struggled to conceal my amazement.


           She didn’t say anything, but sort of curtseyed. I took it as a Hello. She didn’t look like a British. I was later told that she was Russian.


            It was my most uncomfortable evening here in London.



            In the coming months, I was treated like a family member by Mr. Richardson. He would address me with my friend, son, and seldom use Mr. for me. I frequented his house more than any other place in London. I had grown fond of his hospitality and his kind nature. London was home for me now. His wife, however, was one person I always endeavored to avoid. For a long period she maintained a serious tone with me. While speaking to me, she would stare me in the eyes and I felt that I was unwelcome. She didn’t reserve her tenderness for her husband either. Whenever she smiled, she forced it.


            But then her behavior changed, all of a sudden. She began to speak to me in an unhesitant manner, often smiled to me. She treated me like a friend and shared her secrets with me. She and I would stroll the garden when she’d speak her heart out to me. She told me about her childhood in Russia and her misery: she was sold by her parents to Mr. Richardson.


           She told me, during one of these talks, “I loved my parents more than any other thing in this world. I was the most vivacious girl in entire St. Petersburg. I flirted with the boys in my town but never loved any of them. I could see that all they wanted from me was sex. I wanted someone to love me tenderly, to want me for my heart and soul, not for my body. My father used to drink and gamble. His family was nothing to him. My mother, ignored by my father, had an affair with an aristocrat who afforded our bread and butter. I had a young brother who was a pervert too. He didn’t love me or my parents.


            “My father was in debts. His creditors used to torture him, but he was helpless, and accumulated more debts. Then Mr. Richardson came. He was a widower and intended to marry. My father found out and then he tied my hands and legs and exchanged me for money with Mr. Richardson. I didn’t defend myself. I sacrificed myself. I was eighteen then.”


             There were tears in her eyes. She wiped them with her handkerchief and continued, “Mr. Richardson was sympathetic and kind to me. He has never touched me. He took me to Normandy in France and taught me English. There he introduced me to his friends. They all were evil. They thought I was a whore. And then one day, one of them attacked me, but Mr. Richardson rescued me. We left France, and came here to London, where, I met you.”


           “Mr. Hanif,” cried Ms. Wilson, breaking our conversation, “Your mother called from Pakistan. She said she want to talk to you, as a matter of urgency.”


           Oh, how I hated Ms. Wilson. I left Natasha, without telling her how deeply devastated I was to hear her story.



           In my mind, Natasha had changed from a cold, disdainful person to a delicate, vulnerable creature, which can only be rescued with love, I thought. She was beginning to take over my world. How it soothed my heart to look at her, be near her and listen to her sweet voice. I was afraid I loved her, but I kept it to myself. My conscience kept reminding me of the kind Mr. Richardson, and it distressed me.


          Natasha and I became each other’s confidant. We would talk about our past, mostly pleasant, about our interests and delights, about London, and philosophy even. We had come to a point where we could read each other’s face.


          I once asked her, “Natasha, you used to be this rock, stiff and uninviting. Now you’ve become the most pleasant woman-spreading brightness and energy to people around you. How did this happen?”


          She laughed heartily, and said, “Because I saw in your eyes what I had always looked for in men’s eyes-compassion, honesty, loyalty, and...” she paused, “And love.”


          I embraced her, and we kissed.


          As I looked towards the sky in ecstasy, I caught the sight of Mr. Richardson, gazing at us from a window. There was rage in his eyes, but I couldn’t care less. I am ready for a battle, I thought.



          In the same living room, where it all started, Mr. Richardson sat on an armchair wearing a you’ve-betrayed-me look. It didn’t scare me a bit, but I was worried for Natasha. She was still his wife after all. I was thinking to say, Arrest me but let her go.


         He broke the silence, and said, “You can take her.”


         Our heads turned towards him in astonishment. He must have been crazy.


         “Ever since I bought her from that scoundrel, I have been a guilty man. Her stone-like, emotionless face has been bruising my heart,” said he, “How could I be so cruel?” he started crying and Natasha caught it too. “I knew about you both from very long. I wanted to be sure, Natasha, that he was good for you. Go, I’m liberating you, in repentance of my sins against you. Sign that document on that table, and we’ll be divorced. Just go.”


          Natasha kissed him on the cheek as a Good-bye. She then came running at me; I was still in disbelief, until I squealed in pleasure. I picked her up in a bear hug and danced her around.


          We soon got married, and I took her to Pakistan. When we returned to London-so dear to us-we learned that Mr. Richardson had expired. In his will he left us his entire wealth and the Richardson’s Residence.


          Ms. Wilson had disappeared, but left behind a short note. It read as follows:


 Mr. Hanif,


               If you are looking for me, look no more. I detest working for a man, who stole his neighbor’s wife.


 --Ms. Wilson 


                                                                C'est tout (that's all)

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