By Hasan Manzar
Translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon
A cold, wet wind was blowing outside as my plane landed at Heathrow Airport. In the terminal building I spotted Cathy among the crowd coming to receive their relatives and felt reassured. I was no longer worried about how I would get to my flat.
I dumped my baggage in the boot of Cathy’s white Ford and flopped down beside her on the seat. After she pulled the car out of the airport traffic into a calmer street, I lit a cigar and said, “Open the window a bit, or you’ll wind up dead behind the wheel in your quiet, cozy world.”
“You may keep smoking,” she said, without taking her eyes off the road.
I closed my eyes and dozed off. I awakened only when I felt Cathy’s hand trying to remove the cigar butt from between my lips.
“How did you know I was asleep?” I asked.
“How? You snore.”
We had reached my flat. Standing on the dark, cobbled street, I thanked Cathy, promising to tell her about my travels in the morning, and said good-bye to her. Then I looked around impassively. Empty milk bottles stood outside doors in the dim, grey light. Except for one, all the other flats were dark behind curtains that had been drawn shut.
The same old place. I was home for certain! It is a rare quality of Cathy that she never asks questions unless I am in a mood to talk.
In the morning I went through my mail. There were bills, bank statements—the usual stuff.
The cleaning lady came and started work. At one point she asked, “How did your trip go, Mr. Hasan?”
“It went quite well, thank you,” I said, offering her the red box of Benson & Hedges.
She thanked me and picked one. As she put it carefully away in her apron pocket, she said, “I mustn’t waste such an expensive cigarette. I’ll smoke it after I’m finished with the cleaning.”
I gave her the whole box and said, “Come on, old girl, have a smoke with me first. You can always work later.”
“So you felt quite at home there, Mr. Hasan?” she asked blowing a cloud of smoke.
I told her that if by “there” she meant India and Pakistan, she was mistaken. I hardly even knew the names of my relatives in those countries. Or if she meant some other countries, then, until a few months ago, I knew no more about them than did any ordinary Londoner.
I scarcely remember when the cleaning lady left and when Cathy walked in. She had come to take down my travel notes, which she would then type and return to me properly sorted out, so that I could start work on my new book. A number of trifling chores which, like any ordinary traveler, I had foisted upon myself, kept getting in the way, however. I wanted to get them out of the way. For instance, the decrepit old man I had run into at the Angkor Wat ruins—the grand temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu—had asked me through a bout of hacking coughs, “I hear that in England they have come up with a brand new drug for curing bronchial asthma.”
Nearly exhausted from my strolls through the myriad pathways and balconies of the temple that sprawled over some five hundred acres, I had just sat down, removed my burning feet from my shoes, and plunged them into the cool, refreshing dirt. The old man sat close by, carefully holding my movie and still cameras in his lap to protect them from the dust. In the tranquil surroundings, I began to make notes.