BY FARZANA DOCTOR
This is an excerpt (Chapter 1), from Farzana Doctor’s second novel, Six Metres of Pavement, (Dundurn, 2011). Copyright is held by the author.
YEARS AGO, LONG BEFORE Ismail Boxwala came to this country, a school friend told him that the only way to survive misfortune is to stay in motion. The friend was in a philosophical mood induced by too many beers and a recent heartbreak and imparted these words: if the body never moves, if the limbs are not exercised, sadness will turn the blood and lymph stagnant. Regret will cause the heart to grow weak, infection will creep in, and a person will die a slow, painful death.
Ismail Boxwala had no courage for this sort of dying.
After the tragedy that befell him, he remembered his friend’s words. He went back to work, fraternizing only with colleagues who were better at forgetting than he was. On holidays, he visited his older brother, Nabil, and his family, people who showed him a measure of warmth and never pitied him too much. Ismail paid the mortgage, the hydro bills, his taxes. He borrowed library books and read the Toronto Star on weekends. He managed to get out of bed, shake out his arms and legs, moving through life purposeless, a man directionless; alive, but lifeless. His heart grew weak.
Ismail later supposed that his college chum would have said that he hadn’t really stayed in motion, or not quite enough, anyway. He’d have to admit his friend would be right, for he was hesitant to draw attention to himself, maintaining the belief that he could be invisible if he just stayed still. For almost two decades, he kept his head down, became a watcher of sidewalk cracks, rarely noticed the sun.
He never imagined his life could change and so when it began to, he almost didn’t notice the first tiny clues.
Ismail was first introduced to Celia on a warm, late September evening. It was a brief encounter, casual, and easily forgettable. Despite this, each would remember it, even though they wouldn’t see one other again for over a year.
At 5:15 Ismail returned home, and prepared the same meal — an omelette and toast — that he ate every second day for almost 20 years. On alternate days, he opened cans of Patak’s curries. That evening, like most others, he gulped beer while chopping a limp onion, a chunk of ham, and whisking the eggs. He drank more beer while waiting for the butter to warm and pool in the centre of the frying pan.
Routines comforted him, but not completely. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he awoke from dreaming this supper ritual, only, in the dream he looked away for just a moment while the omelette was in mid-flip, and his dinner landed on the floor, where a carpet of cockroaches devoured it lustily while he watched in horror. His dreams were always like this — just a tad melodramatic. There were other dreams, with various insects and creepy crawlies, but the dreams’ messages were always the same: don’t look away, don’t let the mind stray, always be attentive.
Luckily, that evening, his eggs landed safely on his plate and he ate them in the company of Wheel of Fortune. He mouthed vowels and consonants through two rounds, doing slightly better than the contestant from Idaho. He gulped back the rest of his beer, already itching for another. He grabbed his keys and headed out to the Merry Pint.
Scanning the sidewalk ahead, he cringed when he spied Rob Gallagher, rake in hand, tending his yard. Gallagher was the know-it-all of the block and one of Lochrie Street’s few 30-year veterans. Doesn’t every neighbourhood have one of them? The person who could write a book about the area, knows everybody, and likes to be the local spokesperson whenever possible? Gallagher made a career of watching all of the neighbourhood comings and goings for decades, had written endless letters to successive city councillors, griping about potholes, burned-out street-light fixtures, and noise bylaws.
Ismail couldn’t cross the street now; he’d already been spotted. He speculated on what flavour of animosity his neighbour would exhibit that evening. Would Gallagher stare coolly like he did three days previous, or turn up his nose like last month? He was sure that Gallagher had cast him in the role of villain, and Rehana, his ex-wife, as a tragic victim, ever since their daughter died 18 years earlier. Fragments of previously rehearsed but never verbalized defences crowded Ismail’s mind; he wished to say something to redeem himself, but never felt entitled enough to resist Gallagher’s judgments, because he shared them, too.
His first and predictable line of defence in these situations was to perspire. Profusely. He cursed the early autumn sun pressing its way through the clouds and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. He felt a little faint, so he forced himself to do the breathing exercises a therapist once taught him: inhale one, exhale two, inhale two, exhale four, inhale three, exhale six. It didn’t work at first, and he considered retreating to the house, and making his break to the bar later, after darkness had fallen.
On a breezy summer morning almost two decades earlier, Zubi squirmed in her stroller and pointed stubby fingers toward a small, white dog. It surged ahead of its owner, testing the leash. “Doggeeee!” she screamed, and Ismail thought, When did she learn this new word? Why hadn’t Rehana mentioned it? Reflexively, protectively, he stopped, waited for the dog’s owner to catch up to them, and to reel in his pet.
“Yes, that’s a dog,” he told Zubi. “Don’t touch it.”
“It’s all right, he’s friendly,” the man said apologetically, pulling the dog just out of Zubi’s reach. He stretched out his free hand, gave Ismail’s a firm shake, and introduced himself as Rob Gallagher. Ismail, Rehana, and Zubi had lived in the neighbourhood since the previous winter, and although Rehana had met some of the neighbours, Ismail had not.
He rarely accompanied Rehana and Zubi on their speed-walks, finding Rehana’s baby-fat-burning pace and strapped-on ankle-weights both difficult and embarrassing. He wasn’t sure why, but he hardly ever took Zubi out alone. Perhaps being the one solely responsible for her well-being never sat comfortably with him, even then.
But that day, Rehana had an errand to run and had left Ismail with instructions to take Zubi out for some fresh air. He spent a good five minutes wrestling with the stroller before it popped open and he was ready to deposit Zubi into it. Then it was another three minutes of fiddling with the complicated straps, while Zubi squealed Out! Out! Out! before the pair finally left the house. So there he was, strolling to the park with Zubi, when he met Rob Gallagher for the first time.
“Well, isn’t she growing fast these days!” Gallagher said, smiling exuberantly at Zubi. “I swear she’s bigger than last week, even.”
“Yes, she is,” Ismail agreed, regarding his daughter proudly. And then he questioned how well acquainted the stranger was with his daughter and wife, a detail Rehana hadn’t shared with him.
“How old are you now?” Gallagher leaned in, speaking in a high-pitched voice that made him sound like an old woman.
“Doggeee!” she replied.
“That’s right, this is a doggy. His name’s Jack. He’s friendly, want to pet him?” Ismail watched as the dog jumped up, its front paws resting on Zubi’s seat. Zubi recoiled, afraid.
“Er, she’s probably too young for petting the dog. She’s 15 months old now … actually almost 16 months,” Ismail said, pulling the stroller back until the dog’s paws fell back to the ground.
The men talked about property values, the good weather and being amongst the few non-Portuguese people in the area. Ismail found it puzzling that Gallagher lumped himself and the Boxwalas, who hailed from India, in the same broad category of “non-Portuguese.”
Gallagher went on to detail the history of their neighbourhood, explaining that the original occupants were labourers at nearby turn-of-the-century rope factories. Ismail listened patiently, feigning interest, while Zubi babbled to the dog. Their relations remained friendly for a couple of months after that. Then Zubi died, and Gallagher stopped talking to Ismail, as did many of the others on the street.
Ismail continued his debate about whether to continue walking to the Merry Pint. When he looked down the street again, he saw that Gallagher was busy chatting with two women. Gradually, his breathing slowed, and a fresh breeze blew through his open jacket. He inhaled for a count of four, exhaled for eight, and prayed to nobody in particular to permit him to pass by Gallagher unnoticed. When he was just a few feet away from the group, Gallagher looked up, and Ismail thought he saw a look of hesitation cloud over his neighbour’s green eyes. Gallagher frowned, cocked his head slightly to the right, and cleared his throat. Ismail stopped breathing, and felt heat rise through his collar and around his flushed face.
“Ismail, have you met Lydia?” Gallagher asked, with an oddly bewildered expression, gesturing to the younger woman, who was pushing a stroller with a young boy inside. “Um, well, she’s your neighbour from across the street … and this is her son, Marco. Meet Ismail Boxwala.” Ismail flinched at the poor pronunciation: Eyes-smile Boxwaala. Gallagher’s face looked leathery and lined from the sun. Both men were in their early 50s, but Ismail thought Gallagher already resembled a retiree.
“And I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?” Gallagher gaped at the older woman earnestly, who responded to his inquiry with a slight frown.
Finally she muttered, “Celia. Celia Sousa.”
“My name is Marco!” the little boy screamed at Ismail. Then he giggled, witlessly. He shook his head from side to side, bouncing brown curls over his eyes.
“Uh, hello,” Ismail replied, his voice squeaking. He gave each woman a tight smile and a loose handshake. He wasn’t sure what to make of Gallagher’s unexpected courtesy.
“This is my mother. She’s just spending the day with us, helping me out,” Lydia said, gesturing toward the older woman. “Three-year-olds can be so exhausting.” The adults looked down at the boy, who was struggling to undo his stroller straps. “She lives nearby, close to College and Ossington,” Lydia continued, pointing in a northeasterly direction.
Celia’s deep amber eyes locked on Ismail’s, and he averted his gaze, realizing that he’d been caught staring at her. She wore an unbuttoned burgundy coat with feathery trim and with her tanned olive skin, small stature, and near-black hair, she looked almost Indian to him, perhaps a little like that ’80s Bollywood actress, Rekha. The little boy laughed uproariously again and Ismail suppressed an urge to giggle along with him.
“Oh yes, you live in the old Little Portugal, the original one,” Gallagher said.
Ismail suspected his neighbour was trying to impress Celia with information that was more than likely made up. Still, she paid him no mind, focusing instead on Ismail. He noticed that her irises had an unusual shape, with rippling around their outside edges, resembling petals. They called to mind a girl from his college days who had the same uncommon eyes, who everyone called “Daisy” even though her real name was Sunita.
Surprisingly, the older woman’s odd stare didn’t make Ismail nervous. Rather, her attentions were a strange comfort; he felt the sweat on his neck and face drying in the cool breeze, and the sun’s rays seemed to cast a golden glow over them all. Finally, she turned away from Ismail and looked to Gallagher. She shrugged in his direction, acknowledging him as though he were a bothersome child. He didn’t seem to notice her indifference.
“Well, we should go, Mãe. We need to get Marco home and fed,” Lydia announced. A rowdy flock of Canada geese flew over them in a crooked V formation, honking noisily, and Lydia had to raise her voice to be heard over them. They all watched the birds fly toward the lake.
“Nice meeting you,” Ismail said, turning to walk away.
“Uh, yeah,” Gallagher said, blinking and rubbing his eyes as though startling awake from a less-than-restful nap.
Ismail hurried off, surprised at the lack of enmity in Gallagher’s voice. And the women didn’t squint at him, like others had done in the past, their brains working to identify the troublesome details that accompanied the name “Ismail Boxwala.” Rather, there was amiable conversation, sincere greetings, and of course, Gallagher’s unexpected demeanour. Ismail had tried to follow along with this unfamiliar routine, hoping that he had responded in kind, appropriately shaking hands, talking to, and complimenting Lydia’s three-year-old (What a smart young man you are!).
However, he was sure that once he was just out of earshot, Gallagher would lean toward the women, in that way that backstabbing neighbours do, and whisper, in not so hushed tones, the terrible history that kept him alone all those years. But when Ismail looked over his shoulder, he saw that they were not gossiping. Gallagher was back at work, raking leaves, and the women were pushing the stroller toward the house across from Ismail’s. Was it possible that he was slowly being unwritten from the history books? Was he no longer worthy of gossip?
Ismail resolved to shrug off the encounter, not wanting to become too comfortable with its civility. But as he walked the rest of the way to the Merry Pint, he replayed the conversation in his mind, reviewing each and every word. Mostly, he evaluated his own participation, assessing whether he had said the correct, normal, expected things. He chided himself for one or two stupid-sounding errors. He also pondered the older
woman’s attentions, and the feeling of ease that came over him when she looked his way.