I have always felt that hot tea was meant for those in temperate regions of the world, not for us who live in the tropics, and have to grapple daily with the consequence of living along the constant path of the sun’s intensity.
The only way to have my cake and still eat it, was to keep talking while my tea grew cold. I enjoyed the croissant and fruits no doubts. I was sure granny noticed that I had hardly taken more than a sip from my tiny tea cup. I caught Sally smile once or twice behind her cup as well, as I talked about Kobo Olanta and my former Lebanese boss. Then came the inevitable question of why I preferred to work as a guard.
“A watch guard,” I had first corrected. “Being a watch guard is more prestigious than being just any guard. In the sense that you have to keep watch on the visitors, and also watch the clocks tick away, and not feel too sorry for yourself because you realize that your life is passing away with the time. It takes a gift to handle that.”
“Hmm,” Sally had let down her guard. I was sure she would raise back her stoic defense as soon as she realized.
“So Friday was the brother to Sunday at the park.” Granny followed closely.
“Guess you must have been good to the younger sibling.” She dipped her lip into her mug.
“Well,” was all I could say.
“So let me get this clear,” Sally gently placed her cup on the saucer. I braced up, hoping she didn’t read between the lines and ask a question I intentionally didn’t elaborate on.
“So your girlfriend gave your alarm clock away. That’s why you didn’t go to work the next day. Does that make any sense?”
It was time to take a sip of my tea. I needed to buy time to figure out how best to reply this lady. I could see where this conversation was leading to and I didn’t want anyone to think I was after their watch all this time.
“First, she’s my ex.” I corrected, still refusing to say her name. I sipped again. It was obvious that granny was more patient than her granddaughter. “And the clock was not something I bought, or could buy in a mall. It was a possession. Something bequeathed to me by my grandfather. I had a lot of memories with that alarm clock. It had been with me since I could remember.”
The two women exchanged a glance, which could have meant a million things.
“And so you lost your job because of a mere bequeath, probably useless alarm clock.” Sally smirked. I felt she did that on purpose.
“Well, Kobo Olanta was waiting for half the chance.”
“Right.” Granny said. “One thing you must learn to do is choose your battles wisely. That Kobo man knew how to eliminate his foes. And that’s crucial for survival.”
I nodded and picked up my tea cup again. It wasn’t as hot as hot as my mind made it seem after all.
“My mum remarried to a Togolese when I was seven, she never came back for me. I have no idea where she is. Never had. I guess she never could deal with the family issues. She was young, and had her life ahead of her. My dad died only three years after. He was old, and couldn’t keep up with the trouble he had brewed in his life. Rumour has it that his brothers killed him because he never let them have access to the family wealth their father left for them. It was after his death they realized he knew nothing about any wealth. Or maybe really, there was never any wealth. I was his favourite person, though. I have few memories of the fleeting good times.
For the first time in my entire life, I was talking about my family. I had never had any reason to tell anyone about how my growing up life was. Sometimes, I consoled myself with the fact that I was only a child and really didn’t know much about what actually transpired that led to the breakup of the family.
“Only thing is that, I have a damn room to myself, in what used to be my father’s house. And an ancient time piece from my grandfather, which by the way as you know, I no longer am in possession of.”
I smiled as if all I just said was no big deal. Sally’s face had gone ashen while granny had a secretive smile on her face. It was really difficult to know what she was thinking.
I sighed. “I guess that would be enough of me.” I looked up into the beautiful early morning sky. My present life had been robbed of the privilege and luxury of appreciating the patterns and intricacies of the morning sky and to be embraced by the stealthy breeze that came with it. It was and had always been hustle for me. Hustle from dawn to dusk. Hustle till I quench.
So far, I had seen only two other people in this house. They had white uniforms on. I heard a few more voices down the corridor when we made our way through to the patio where we sat for tea, but that was all. This house reminded me of the Mexican soap operas we used to watch as kids. There were lots of flower pots with exotic plants around, which produced a potpourri of magnificent aromas that could heighten one’s olfactory senses. It smelt like granny. Or was it the other way round? I sat back and waited for the topic to be changed.
Was this why granny wanted to see me? Just for breakfast and a cup of ground dried leaves mixed with steaming hot water?
“I once worked as an apprentice at a watch repairer’s shop. The Eli I knew was also an apprentice at the cloth maker’s shop just opposite the road. I was fifteen then, and it was winter in Albania.”
Why this woman suddenly sounded like a character off the Game of Thrones, I didn’t know. On a second thought, it must have been because of the mention of winter.
I studied her complexion closer. The wrinkles on her skin were intricately weaved, creating fine netted patterns only old age could have been patient with. But even the years gone by couldn’t wash away the beauty that glowed from her eyes.
“Lots of people came around to either repair their time pieces or while away their time. Most would offer me a drink in exchange for a quick tumble. It’s said that everybody’s got a price, but they never really came close to offering what I was worth.
“Eli seldom talked with me, even though we were both dark skinned, a factor that I felt should have brought us closer. He didn’t feel there was a need for us to form a union of black people in the street. I would rather say he was wise than cowardly, because that would have only attracted the authorities. He was here to work and not to settle. I saw it in his eyes every time he waved courteously at me. He was a man with a purpose.”
I noticed Sally’s rapt attention. It was possible that she was hearing this version of her granny’s story for the first time.
“One quiet afternoon, a gentle man rang the door, and requested me to help repair a watch. From his double breasted coat, and thick leather gloves, he didn’t look like someone from the area. Apart from the fact that he didn’t complain about the clog at the door way, or the lack of enough warmth in the reception, he spoke softly with utmost regard for a lady. He might have been a government worker, his rich accent confirmed that.
“So I tried to see if I could repair his watch. The man looked like he was in a hurry. About ten minutes later, I was done. The fingers of the watch were ticking with enthusiasm. The man was impressed. He said to me then that perhaps it was time I opened my own repair store. He was gone as soon as he paid me.
“Five minutes later, he reentered the shop, taking off his walking glasses, as he spoke. ‘Could you please do me a favour, my lady?’ he requested. I didn’t notice the break of sweat from his temple, I was only too delighted to assist the gentleman with yet another of his request.
‘May I leave this box here in your care? I need to see a relative five blocks away, and I think I’m overdressed. I will be back in twenty minutes.’ He had said.’”
Now this was shifting into a Sean Connery movie in my head. I almost smiled at the thought. More like James Bond in Moscow.
“Of course, I said he could. Twenty minutes later, the man hadn’t return. One hour, he was nowhere to be found. As fate would have it that was the first time Eli came into my master’s shop. He had a bag full of groceries, and said he bought them for me. ‘You are looking lean,’ I remember his words clearly.
“I was so delighted he came into the shop, but was also beginning to get nervous that the gentle man who had left a portable box in my care was yet to return. I told Eli about it, and he dispelled the worry that was growing on my face.
“Just then, three men dressed in almost the same kind of outfit as the first man, came in through the door. They looked angry and dangerous, but acted well mannerly too. They tipped their hats. Their spokesman had a thick Western European accent. He asked if any strange looking man had come into the shop at any time that day. That was when Eli took over the conversation. ‘We just came in here a few minutes ago to see the repair man, so we wouldn’t know. Business seem kind of slow in this side of the city.’ Eli had acted casually.
‘And where is the repair man?’ the ring leader asked, gritting his teeth in the course.
‘He must be at the back, hasn’t been out in the past five minutes.’
‘Who are you two his family?’
‘No. I came to repair my watch, this is my fiancée, Rachail. My name is Mosis. Mosis Islah.’ Eli said it without changing his facial expression. I couldn’t believe where he got all the names from. I just stood dumfounded with the groceries still in my arms, and an ad hoc fiancé by my side.
“We watched the leader of the three make a quick decision, before he waved us out of the shop. I was out of my master’s shop, hoping that these men won’t discover that my master hadn’t been to work that day before we disappeared from their sight. We didn’t need a soothsayer to tell us who they were and what they were looking for.
Outside in the cold, we walked as fast as possible, never looking back at the shop for once. Ten minutes later we were on a train to nowhere in particular. We were just running away. The moment Mosis-Eli pulled out the tiny box from his coat, I knew that neither of us would ever try go back to that street.”
“How come you never told me about this?” Sally questioned her granny,
“Well, your father knows about it, even if not all.”
“So, what happened next?” I asked granny, eager to find out how life played out afterwards.
“Hmm, it was good, great in fact, but it was also painful. The three weeks that followed were the greatest of my young innocent life, but was also one of the most regrettable. Come with me, let me show you both something.”
There was no doubt this entire house was a history book of some sort. Every corner held one story or another. I wondered what the house will be turned into after this woman’s demise. She looked frail, fragile, yet it seemed she had never been as alive as she was now.
We entered into a bedroom, which I guess had been under lock and key for more than a year. It was filled with iron boxes and carriers. Everything here was ancient. Even the air smelt old.
After I had lifted a few of the boxes aside, she finally decided on the one I should bring forward. It was a big chest, the size of school desk. I almost dropped it on the floor from the unexpected weight it had. The old woman wanted it by her side where she sat by the edge of the bed.
The latchets weren’t rusty, but were a bit stuck from years of idleness. So my strength was needed once again. Eventually, granny lifted the lid, and revealed to us a vast collection of white silver halide photographs. Her face was expressionless, as I watched her hands tremble lightly.
She pulled off a rubber band, and slowly flipped through the first set of pictures. She smiled so wide at the picture in her hand that Sally and I moved closer to take a better look. It had about a dozen people of different ages. None looked familiar us, not even to Sally. We waited for granny to introduce us to the people of her past, and perhaps point to herself in the picture.
“When my son was little, he always asked who these people in the pictures were. I told him that these were my family.”
“And that should be you? I guess.” Sally ventured. Apparently, she hadn’t been too inquisitive enough to delve into the history that laid in this room. Or it could have been that an unwritten warning sign had hung on the door all these years.
“That is Eugene, my only sister. She was three years older. She died the following week after we took this picture. Truth is that, they all died. Because of me.” It was regret and not pain that reflected on the old woman’s face. All these many years still couldn’t disguise the sorrow fetched from her childhood days.
A curious frown suddenly grew on both me and Sally’s face. We tried finding the link between the new piece of information and the story about how she and Eli had escaped for their lives.
It was as if she could read our minds. The white strands of hair that sparsely populated her dry scalp must have received ultra-terrestrial signals, because she simply went back to that story.
“At first, like I said, we didn’t know where we were going to. We just wanted to leave that part of town. We took that train to its final destination. Not until then did we summon the courage to open the box.” The old woman looked at us, her darting eyes now shone sapphire.
“It was in a john inside a little inn in a small town called Ilyth.” Her eyes slowly began to grow wider that I felt it would pop open any minute. “When we opened the box, we discovered the different kinds of tiny time pieces in it. It wasn’t something anyone could expect. There were alarm clocks, table clocks, breast-pin watches, and necklaces that had watches hang from them as pendants, and a tiny pocket diary.”
The resulting sigh from Sally masked my thoughts, but something inside my head was slowly and painstakingly plotting lines.
“We opened the diary, and discovered the writings were gibberish. Tried as we may, we couldn’t make sense out of it. It wasn’t written in any language we knew, not even a vague resemblance to our original local language.
“I remembered the man who had brought the box, and how he had looked. I still do. I remember his mannerism. He was a man who seem to suppress the laughter and humor his heart had been so used to. So all he could show was respect. Even with his few words, he showed respect.”
Granny slowly placed the card of photos in the iron chest, and fused her fingers into each other, allowing the sound and sights of her past life engulf her in a swoop.
“Immediately we decided to go back to our town, and perhaps find the man, the owner of the tiny box.
“The next day we made our way back to the train station, and lo, we spotted those men that had come into my master’s repair shop. They were rummaging the station, definitely in search for us. Soon, we discovered they weren’t just three, but over a dozen. They were everywhere. And for the first time, we suspected them to be Germans.”
“That was so unexpected, because, as at that time, the whole country was ruled my King Zog and was under the colony of Italy. So we had more Roman visitors than Germans, or Portuguese .”
Now, I was sure over two hundred billion dollars would be made from this story if the right director from Hollywood were to be listening in.
“For three days, Eli and I took cover in a farmer’s pig sty where the news of our being wanted hadn’t reached. There we laid down our options and decided where to go and what to do with the box full of time pieces.
“On the fifth day, we moved to the coastal town closest to where we were. That was when Eli told me of the possibility of going back home to his land of origin. And that was Africa. He said he hailed from the Benin kingdom, and that he would be greatly accepted back if he returned home, especially with a half-white lady.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t have any of his suggestions. They were as ridiculous as any crazy thought could be. I couldn’t just leave here like that. This was my country, this was where I was born; the only home I knew. My parents and siblings. My priest, my apprenticeship. For me, there was no leaving the known for the uncertain. What would I find there if I went with him? For the first time, I realized we were strangers to each other. I liked him a lot. I had since the day I saw him from across my master’s shop, but now he was a stranger, mainly because he asked me to go deeper; to commit more than anyone ever had. He had even called me his fiancée to save my life, and from the look in his eyes, he desperately wanted to make it so.”
For the first time, I watched the old woman swallow a lump in her throat. Her eyes were near misty. But only misty. For they were now too old for tears.
“Eli saw this as our chance to leave, before long, we were at the port where we could join one of the ships that headed towards Casablanca. I couldn’t leave just like that. I had a family here. I wasn’t going to make a spur of the moment decision all in the name of love.
“Were there schools in Africa for me to get learned? Would I find a priest to tell my sins? Or anyone to come repair their watches? Would my sister be coming along? I thought about all this.” The old woman sighed.
“As long as the answers to all the questions were a no, then I was sure I wasn’t going the way towards Africa. It pained Eli, but it seemed there was a bigger chance for him there than here. His choice wasn’t made because he feared his life was in danger, no. He saw half the chance, and he wanted to take it. It was right in his eyes, the young man was ready to go back home, even if he went empty.
On the day the last ship was to leave the dock, we stood arm in arm, never wanting to let go. He tried for one last time to persuade me, but all I saw was my future here, in my country. I liked him. I could even say it was love, but I wasn’t head over heels.
We cried, we kissed. We kissed for a long time. That was my first kiss. I would have given in then, but I refused to let just my heart lead me. You could call me stubborn.”
I heard Sally sniff, but I refused to allow my nose get moist. I wringed it lightly.
“Because we didn’t have any memento to part with, he pulled open the box, and chose a silver chain watch. I chose an alarm clock.”
Granny began nodding slowly.
“He put the silver chain across my head, and told me he would never stop loving me as long as there would always be time.”
“He kissed me lightly, one last time.” She sighed before she continued. “Then I gave him the alarm clock and begged him to always think of me first thing every morning when the alarm rings.”
“He nodded his head, and slowly we let go of each other. Eli didn’t turn back to look at me till he was safely on the ship. We didn’t wave at each other. We just stared. Rivers of tears flooded my face, till my eyes were too clouded to see the ship disappear into the horizon.
“That night, I buried the box in a place only I could find. And the next day, I headed back home hoping that the chase on my life would have been out. That was when I learnt that there is emptiness in the pursuit of purpose and dreams if it couldn’t be shared with a loved one.”
“Yes, I know what you are thinking.” The old woman looked me in the eyes and smiled. “Tell me, did you ever meet him?”
I shook my head.
She sniffed, and managed to use her handkerchief.
“The agony that tore at the sinew of my heart was what drove me insane with an insatiable obsession with my work. I got home to meet my family house raised in an inferno. All fourteen of my family members were caught in the fire. And all I could take out were a few half burnt pictures of my days in Albania. It was a fire in winter.”
Sally crept from the side of the bed she sat and hugged her grandmother for a long while. I was sure that this was enough pain for a day, but I was wrong. The old woman wasn’t done.
“I moved away to some Maltese island, and for two years, I mourned. When I felt I was done grieving, I came back to the coastland for the box. It was as I had left it. At that time, Zog’s reign in Sqiptare had been ended by the new government coalition, and he was sent on exile till his death.”
“Eli was the only person that remained on my mind through the entire mourning period. I knew I had to see him; I knew I was late, but I also had to deal with some things first. I moved to the least expected place on the planet. I stayed in Germany for four year, until I felt I was done.”
“Now I could read the words in the diary left in that box; I could even say everything verbatim. I was now a different person. Maybe possessed, maybe obsessed. But I knew I had to head to Africa.”
“So,” I thought about how to frame the thoughts in my head to words. Right words. “You know what the words in the alarm clock means.” I peered at her. As obvious as I began to see what the response would be, I literarily stopped my breath.
The old woman didn’t smile this time, instead she tsked her mouth, and motioned for me to come closer. “Yes. Yes, I know. Yes, you will soon find out what it means. They say ignorant is bliss; and curiosity kills the cat. But it all depends on the choices you make, irrespective of what is written.”
I thought about the mysterious words that had never left my mind since the day I first read it. I thought hard for a few seconds if I really wanted to know what they meant. And what potency they carried.