Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Short Story


It is most understandable for any woman, of good and ill breeding alike, to refuse to listen to any explanation from her husband for the shocking discovery of a lady's perfumed handkerchief in his underpants whilst taking off his trousers in front of her and her children. 'Don't dear me!' repeated Mrs. Harrington every time her husband tried to open his mouth with 'Listen my dear...'
'You should be ashamed of yourself. Act your age, the Managing Director of Royal Deodorants Consolidation, mixing with Middle East whores! Look at this,' she said to her city gentleman of a husband, pointing to the Arabic inscription on the handkerchief, 'A dirty Arab prostitute! A busy committee meeting with a prostitute every Thursday evening!'
'But listen my dear. I really don't know whether she was Arab or Persian, what ...'
'No, you don't know,' she interrupted him for the tenth time, 'You don't even know where she comes from. You don't care! Anything in a skirt!'
Just when the respectable Mr. Harrington was about to resume his unfinished sentence, there was another outburst from his wife: 'Christ! Who is this grinning, blood curdling vampire? Who is he? Homosexuality - I've always suspected it. My God!' The unsuspecting woman thrust the lace handkerchief into Mr. Harrington's hands revealing the printed picture on its corner, and started to sob.
Little did any of them know the full story of this little piece of white material on its long hazardous journey across mountains and seas on its way to Mr. Harrington's underpants, or the part which it hd played in the rich history of Babylon in earlier days when children used to play and not simply sit around and watch the grown-ups play, when men were men and shaved their pubic hair and not their beards and moustaches, and when tailors fixed buttons to men's trousers instead of the erratic fly zippers. That was a time when the sole Leader was first released from his sealed bottle with the magic formula of 'Hey! coup d' etat!', three times repeated by three senior officers of a tanks brigade at the first crow of a cock, and proceeded to fill the earth and skies of Babylon with his portraits. Anything prohibited became instantly permitted merely by the judicious addition of the Leader's portrait; anything barred from importing into the land was allowed as long as it carried the picture of the Leader. Bubble gum for the kids, false teeth for the old, American stockings for the women, steel crutches for the cripples were all given import licenses free from all customs duties as long as they carried the portrait of the Leader printed on them with a suitable caption of praise and adoration.
This gentle device of getting around the law saved many business houses from the destruction of the protection decrees. Ali Chalabi, an importer of foreign garments and lingerie, had his application for Hong Kong made socks granted in full just by incorporating the Leader's image into the pattern of the socks. When the Leader examined his petition, he scribbled in the margin the question: 'Where will he put my picture?' Ali Chalabi simply replied to the sole Leader, 'Of course on the sole.' And the sole Leader put his signature, 'To be granted.' The purchase of these socks was then made compulsory throughout the Armed Forces, prisons, orphanages and mental asylums.
Inspired by such an encouraging appreciation from the Government, Ali Chalabi went on to import ladies' handkerchiefs and men's silk ties with the same decorative motive. Mrs. Hana al-Wasily, the President of the Revolutionary Women's Federation, announced that November woman would be admitted to the membership of the Revolutionary Federation without buying at least one lace handkerchief from Mr. Chalabi's merchandise. As November woman in Iraq could find any employment without the Revolutionary Federation's card, the announcement amounted to an order that November woman should be given any job without carrying Mr. Chalabi's handkerchief.
'How dare you!' shouted Mrs. Hana al-Wasily at her secretary one day as she sneezed all over her desk and her new fur, 'How dare you produce in my presence an ordinary miserable handkerchief! Where is your Leader's handkerchief?' The poor girl panicked, stammered and could only say with a broken voice, 'But ... but do you want me to spit at his image every time I cough?'
Mrs, Wasily found the question really perplexing and could only point to the door and dismiss the unhappy secretary. After ten minutes of painful thought, she reached the conclusion that this was going to be another bad day and, succumbing to this realisation, she opened her handbag and took two Valium tablets.
However, on further consultations and committee deliberations, it was resolved that every member of the Revolutionary Woman's Federation should carry two handkerchiefs, one with the picture of the Leader as a sign of love and devotion, and one plain for the purpose of spitting. It was also resolved that Mr. Ali Chalabi should be given another license to import a second consignment of plain handkerchiefs.
Upon hearing of this new revolutionary measure, the sole leader invited Mrs. Wasily and all serving members of the Executive Committee of the Revolutionary Women's Federation, together with the young secretary who sneezed, Miss Wahida Said. They were met by all the top brass of the Armed Forces in an extended reception in which the Leader delivered another speech on the imperialist conspiracies hatched against the Republic and the vigilance of the people exemplified by young Wahida Said in her intelligent stance. A young officer with the rank of captain then stepped forward and presented Miss Said with a small box, but elaborately decorated, containing a lace handkerchief embroidered in real gold with the portrait of the Leader. With tears in her eyes, Miss Said lifted the handkerchief carefully like a precious piece of old papyrus and exhibited it to her colleagues, upon which everybody, including the Leader, said 'Ah!' The whole occasion was then televised and recorded for posterity.
'This is the most precious thing a woman can have in all her life,' said Mrs. Wasily to her young secretary. 'The Leader's handkerchief, presented by the Leader himself. You must be very careful with it. The agents of imperialism will simply mug you and rob you of it.' But Wahida was not short of advisers on this point as everybody turned to become an old uncle or an old aunt to her: You mustn't wash it, you should only send it to the dry cleaners; have you insured it? For how much was it valued? Be careful when you get it out of your handbag!
The handkerchief itself was some eight inches by eight with another inch of intricate lace, with all the edging made in gold. In the left corner, there was the emblem of the Republic, in the right corner, the head of the sole Leader with one blotch for hair, another for mouth and two round ones for eyes. The mouth looked more like a baby lizard not knowing where to go and the eyes wee those of a hopeless boxer who had just received two mighty punches on both of them. But taken together with the two shrivelled ears and the square jaw, they somewhat imparted a feeling of fear and rancour. Still, all the girls agreed that the image was undoubtedly that of the Leader. November one could mistake it. Just under the portrait, a slogan was inscribed in Arabic: 'Who dares speaks.'
The Revolutionary Women's Federation organised a hectic programme for Miss Wahida Said to visit almost every town and city in Iraq, escorted by the leaders of the Federation to demonstrate the devotion to the Leader as the feminist version of true patriotism. After every speech from Mrs. Wasily, Wahida exhibited her handkerchief, which was then met with resounding applause and loud soprano cheers. Wahida was then showered with flowers, in and out of season, and lauded with gifts ranging from the native dates, which had become so scarce in the market, to Palmolive soap, which could only be found in officers' clubs, all presented by the provincial governors, military commanders and secret police officers disguised in uniform.
This mass appreciation of her past singular gesture cultivated in her mind a frantic attachment to the golden handkerchief which accompanied her on all her travels and assignments so much so that the people around her started to call her Miss Handkerchief, and everybody agreed that this was a better and more evocative name than the common Miss Said, which seemed to be more appropriate for ports and harbours as she soon found out during her first foreign trip to Egypt.
November women's delegation from Iraq was complete without Wahida who attended almost every international women's event from the annual dinner of the Soroptimist International to the Conference of the World Association of Hockey Clubs. Her commitments took her to Moscow, Peking, Cairo, Paris, Prague, San Francisco and finally London.
The visit to the British capital caused great excitement in the Revolutionary Women's Federation of Iraq in view of the very special place occupied by Oxford Street in the hearts and minds of the leaders of the Arab women's liberation movement. There was considerable jostling, pushing and string-pulling in the offices of the Women's Federation as soon as the intended visit was announced. 'Please, I need a new hip,' said the assistant secretary. 'They say they can fit you with a new hip in Harley Street.'
'And what about my vertebrate? Oh, the pain it's been giving me all these months!' said another.
'But none of you can speak English, so what is the use of you going to England? At least I can speak Armenian,' said the crafty Armenian chief clerk.
Almost crying in front of her typewriter, the Arabic typist simply moaned, 'As far as I am concerned, they can go to hell. I am not Wahida; I haven't got a handkerchief to take me anywhere I want.'
'I think it's becoming ridiculous. This handkerchief has become like a holy writ from the High Kadi,' whispered another typist whilst looking carefully over her shoulder.
'I wish to God she loses it.'
'Maybe someone in London will snatch her handbag. I pray to God they may.'
The arguments of the women did not finish with the selection of the visiting delegates, but continued in the airport coach, in the jumbo jet, in the Regent Palace Hotel and in the London underground. 'You've been twice to Oxford Street today, Samira, and I haven't been there at all since Monday,' said the delegate from Basrah. 'This is unfair.'
'You know,' said Mrs. Wasily to a colleague, 'You can't spend all your time in the hair removing clinic. We have some responsibilities on this tour. Who is going to speak at the meeting tomorrow?'
But Wahida was free from all this hustle and was content to spend all her time between Oxford Street and Regent Street and go back to her friends in Wimbledon Park loaded with shopping bags. After one particularly exhausting expedition, she took the Wimbledon train from the Embankment station and was immensely relieved to find an empty seat between two men. Like most of the other male passengers in the rush hour, both looked like civil servants, city brokers or business men on their way home. The one on the left of Wahida was younger and spent most of the time secretly eyeing Wahida out of the corner of his eye. The one on her right was an older gentleman, more formally dressed , who spent most of the time reading his newspaper and doing his best to shield himself from the presence of this exotic looking, foreign girl sitting dangerously close to him. For the latter purpose, he shifted his briefcase and put it by his side in the manner of an erected barrier between himself and the lady in question. Despite her scanty knowledge of English, Wahida managed to read the business card on the briefcase: 'Royal Deodorants.' Miss Said smiled faintly as she went on wondering why the Royal family of Great Britain should sell deodorants.
This over zealous curiosity on the part of Wahida Said was detected by Mr. Harrington who hastened to take additional protective measures by spreading his Daily Telegraph all around himself until he was almost completely wrapped up by its pages. Having thus made himself secure enough, his next move was to give all his thought and wordly concern to the printed columns all around him.
The train rumbled on from Victoria Station, to Sloane Square, to South Kensington, Gloucester Road and so on in its westerly direction towards Putney and Wimbledon, swallowing up more people and disgorging similar numbers at every station. To the young gentleman on her left, Wahida appeared to have suddenly lost her serenity and comfortable posture and began to grope for something, or struggle against something until the underground train, now travelling well overground, left Putney Bridge station to cross the River Thames. Whether it was due to a sudden gust of wind from the river escalating the perpetual draught so notoriously associated with London Transport and the British way of life, or as a result of the covetous eyes which the young gentleman was giving to the foreign looking female sitting by his side, Wahida Said could November longer suppress the onslaught of her old allergy and burst out in a violent fit of sneezing.
In the distracting confusion so typical of any allergic attack, Miss Said opened her handbag and desperately looked for the one most essential item for such an attack, and fished out the Leader's handkerchief, with which she covered half of her face. Having been thus confounded and kept at bay, the draught decided to alter its tactics and within the next minute made a sudden onslaught at the elegant handkerchief, snatched it from Wahida's hands, carried it off in one bout and dropped it in Mr. Harrington's lap. It settled like crumpled piece of paper with one corner stretching out exactly on top of his flies.
Blood rushed into Wahida's face and her hand dropped by her side. Her predicament of how to rescue the precious piece of material from that delicate part of a gentleman was shared by all the fellow travellers in the train. They moved their eyes, forward and backward at her, at the handkerchief, at her shopping, at the man still barricaded behind his newspaper totally oblivious of the latest development in this underground carriage, and wondered what was best to do. A little boy who was sitting on his mother's knee made a move to jump down and rescue the misplaced item for its legitimate owner, but his mother hastened to restrain him immediately and the rebellious child only gave up the struggle after hearing a few words from his mother. She bent forward towards him and whispered what seemed like magic words in his ear. He looked at the handkerchief and the place where it had settled and then at the man, and abandoned the rescue attempt with horror clearly marked on his face.
The atmosphere engulfing that end of the carriage became so tense and delicate that even the oblivious Mr. Harrington could not escape its silent demand for attention. Feeling that there was something not quite in order and that the gentlemanly act was expected of him, he lowered the newspaper a few centimetres and looked at the people on the opposite row of seats. The grinning faces were all looking in his direction and almost everyone was dying to tell him something, but were prevented by a particular air of embarrassment. As expected, Mr. Harrington's immediate reaction was to blush and shiver without understanding why, what was wrong or who was guilty of anything. A furtive look at the female passenger sitting on his left revealed a very embarrassed face and a cheek going white, yellow and red in the frenzy of hurried sequences. Like the rest of the passengers around him, she was looking in his direction, or rather in the direction of his trousers just in front of his Daily Telegraph.
Obviously, there was something wrong - perhaps something wrong with his trousers. In a terrible moment of extreme anxiety and embarrassment clearly reflected in his twitching lips, flickering eyes and shaking hands, he lifted the newspaper stealthily and cast a casual, momentary glance down at his belt. He saw the finger of a white patch of material, and wasted November time in reaching the only logical conclusion possible for any groomed gentleman facing such a sight: the tail of his clean, white shirt was sticking out of his unbuttoned flies. Quick as a flash, his left hand covered his middle with the respectable Daily Telegraph, and with his right hand he pushed the Leader's handkerchief into his private parts. Within five seconds, he resumed his former posture with the Daily Telegraph all around him, reading Peterborough's 'London Day to Day.'
Mr. Harrington was satisfied as he noticed that the former worried grins on the faces of his fellow travellers turned now to pleasant smiles mixed with a pinch of amusement like that of a theatre goer coming out of a clever performance of an Oscar Wilde play, eager to get home and tell all to the rest of the unfortunate family who missed it. Luckily for him, Mr. Harrington did not cast a second furtive look at Wahida, who was by then almost in tears.
At the next station, Mr. Harrington folded his newspaper, picked up his briefcase and left the train. And that was how the private parts of an English gentleman happened to become the final destination of the Leader's gilded portrait so dearly cherished by Miss Wahida Said and her troupe of delegates from the Revolutionary Women's Federation in Iraq.


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