I look up at the sky. Rolls of clouds clamp together like cotton candy. It is a cheerful Sunday morning. The slight breeze from the sea blows softly. I hasten my walk. I only have 15 minutes before my shift starts.
My name is Asiah. I am named after the wife of the famous Pharaoh according to the Islamic tradition, by my grandmother. I still remember clearly back when I was still a child, she would gaze me with her smiling eyes and constantly pat me on my head, repeating the words like a chant: “May you grow strong in faith as Asiah, the Pharaoh’s wife. Even when she had to go through the heaviest trials in life – her faith did not waver.”
I personally have no attachment to the name. At times I even find it so old-fashioned.As old as the Pharaoh, I’d say to myself.
I doubt myself to be as strong as her. I mean, those things just do not happen anymore. The kind-hearted queen tortured by her evil King husband. They just happened in the past. If anything I am nowhere near having the spirit of Asiah.
I glance at my watch. 7:21 AM. My shift starts at 7.30. I stop walking and start running, accompanied by the sounds of seagulls and waves breaking at the shore – the sound that has become the music of my life.
I have always loved the beach. When I was a child, my parents would bring me to visit my grandmother who happened to be living near a beach. Every evening she would hold my tiny hand, and walk me along the seaside. And she would tell me the most wonderful stories of the Prophets.
She had become one of the people I wish to be when I grow up one day. Her lengthy soft-coloured headscarves would cover her modestly. And yet, she didn’t look as trapped, as what the TV would say. If anything, she seemed to be enjoying the freedom than what most women today could only crave for. And she seemed to be always smiling, like there was nothing in this world that could ever break her. And when she smiled, you couldn’t help but feel that warm feelings bubbling inside you. And when she spoke, every word that was coming out from her lips were like strings of precious pearls – something I would always clung on to, never letting go.
She had passed away. They found her on her rocking chair, with the Qur’an on her lap. They said, she had never looked as peaceful as on the day they had found her. I didn’t remember anything after that. I just remembered the blurry image of my mother sobbing on my father’s shoulder and the sky that seemed to be crying too.
Remembering her now sends a pang in my heart, and I try to forget the pain and remember her smile.
Somehow remembering her smile will get me through even my worst day.
And today… it could be one of those days. It’s 7.27am. I swear under my breath – and run like I had never run before.
* * *
Luckily, I manage to come at the nick of time – just few seconds shy from Nancy (my boss) stepping out of her office.
Nancy is the owner slash the manager of the café. She has the air of don’t-mess-with-me about her. Standing at 5” 5, she’s pretty short for a 32-year-old, but her thin physique (and probably the height extender she hides beneath the soles of her shoes) gives a slight illusion as if she’s taller than she probably is. She always wears her red hair pulled back either in a ponytail or a chignon – inevitably pulling all her facial feature backwards making her face looks like she is constantly sucking a lemon. She wears a pointy, black-rimmed spectacle, making her eyes looks smaller – and scarier – than it should be. A mole dots her otherwise cleans face, just above her left never-smiling lips.
In a matter of split second I manage to duck under the counter, drape with the Café’s signature red and black apron, and pretend like I am mopping the floor mad-scientist-style just as Nance strides out of her office, hands on her hips, her eyes scanning the place like a General ready to shoot any slacking soldier upon sight.
“KATHY MCKARSON!” She screeches. Her pitch hits so high, she doesn’t bark – she screeches.
Uh-oh. I lift my head just a tiny bit from beneath the counter to see Kathy, the new girl, timid and shy, walks in – who must’ve came in just few minutes after I arrived. Apparently, she’s not as lucky. She bows her head vigorously, muttering words of apology from her mouth while attempting to make her way to the counter through the tables and chairs.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Nancy stomps her foot while at the same time bangs her hand on one of the tables. “COME HERE!” a scream worth a gazillion decibels can be heard coming from her tiny mouth. If an earthquake can be generated by sheer human force, I think she’d did just that.
At the corner of my eye, I see Kathy stops dead on her track. Uh-oh, this is bad…this is really bad.
Even I start to lick my lips nervously, because “Come here” basically means “You’re dead” or “You’re soon to be dead” by the definition of Der Führer Nance The Great. Kath turns around and heads towards where Nancy is standing, who has her arms folded in front of her chest – ready to shoot some deathly laser words.
“YOU’RE LATE AGAIN! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU?! ARE YOU X#%^$…” She rants on and on, her arms flailing around you’d thought she is trying to win a fly-swatting competition. The sudden image of my boss holding a fly-swatter popping in my mind creates a tremor of giggling-fit inside – and I bit my tongue in an attempt to suppress it. This isn’t funny. She swears so much it sounds like she is reciting some sort of a mantra. I swear I had never heard swear-words so much in one sentence before. It is razor-sharp and makes one feels like being sliced alive. Each word hurts much more than the last. I wonder how on earth Kathy managed to bear all those curses when even I myself wince – a lot.
I don’t know what Nance has against Kathy exactly. She is a nice kiddo – just few months younger than me. Kathy started just a few months after me. So, basically we’re the newbies around here. She probably has a lot more reason to be wanting this job so much more than I do – cause she needs to take care of her sick mum, who is no longer working, and her little sister, who is still studying in elementary school. That is why Kath is working at two jobs at once – while at the same time still going to college, like any 18-year-olds.
Beneath her quietness and shyness, somewhere deep inside me, I adore Kath’s courage to be able to face all of those bombardments especially when being assaulted with such rants on almost a daily basis has become part of your life. Of all the staffs, Kath seems to be Nance all-time-favorite punch-bag to receive all the verbal abuses. And I could never figure out why Nancy seems to have taken instant dislike to Kath the moment she laid her eyes on her. A fellow colleague said that Nance’s born to make everyone’s life a misery, fullstop. Just last week she sacked a girl for accidentally crashing a newly-purchased huge, transparent, double-layered flower-vase, with small, colourful fighting fishes swimming around inside it – the café’s latest investment for – supposedly – attracting potentially rich-customers.
And last month, she fired a guy because he “was so stupid, he couldn’t read the labels right and delivered them all at the wrong places” (in his defense, he only got two of the orders wrong – and he only just started).
I, myself, had gotten my fair share of Nance’s renowned verbal-lashings myself. Twice this month – and I’ve lost count of how many times I got scream at in the previous months. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone in the café has ever NOT received any – period.
After what seems to be an eternity, I see Nancy waves her forefinger to Kath’s pale face indicating a warning and I am brought back to reality.
“… you’re gonna come both the noon and the evening shifts next week – while still at the same payment rate.” She says with her bow-down-to-me tone.
I stare at her, mouth agape, as if she has just spoken an alien language.
She can’t do that…can she? Because she knows – she has to know that Kath is working two jobs at the same time: the café (noon, except for Sunday) and the clinic (evening). And asking Kath to come for both the noon and night shift – she might as well give Kath a death sentence.
I begin to stand up from my floor-scrubbing-pretense. At this stage, almost half of the staffs are already poking their heads out of the kitchen, the toilets and the storeroom, trying to figure out what the hullaballoo’s about.
“Nance… c’mon, she’s just few minutes late–” a voice magically surfaces, and even more shocking that it comes out from my own mouth. She swerves around, her mouth made a tiny ‘o’ – probably out of shock that somebody even dared make a sound in the middle of her commandeering.
“Stay out of this Mohammed,” she warns, sending her infamous death-rays on my way, “…or you’re gonna start getting what she gets.”
I jolt on my track. That warning should be enough to send me back on my knees, pretending like it was all a mistake and I was stupid to say such things, right?
I gulp. I take one look at Kath, who is standing there helplessly. Kath is such a nice girl; she’s so innocent and the only thing I know about her is just how much she loves her family, and that she’s willing to do anything for them – even if it means cutting her body into half, if it means she can be at two places at one time.
“But-but that’s just ludicrous. You know Kath has to work her night shifts at the clinic, she can’t afford to miss it a night – let alone a week! She’ll lose that job–”
“Shut the hell up, Mohammed.” Like a boiling kettle, I can see the invisible thermometer starts to rise up beneath Nancy’s reddening skin.
Out of sheer panic, I start to blabber God knows what, “But this is stupid! And you know it’s stupid! She’s just few minutes late for goodness’ sake! Why can’t you just cut her salary or send her to wash the dishes or something–”
She bulges her eyes, looking like she has been slapped. “You. Do. Not. Tell. Me. How. To . Do. My. Job.”
She closes her eyes, and crosses her arms again. I can imagine Nance counting silently in her head, probably trying to regain her composure.
When she opens her eyes, I can see her sinister smile creeping up her face, which can only mean something even more evil is coming up.
“I cannot afford to employ an incapable employee running wild in this café – one who doesn’t even know the time to come to work…” she puts extra emphasise here, “…nor one who doesn’t know her place in this café,” she glares at me when she says this. “It’s wasting the café’s time, money and resources.”
“I think,” she continues, “I might just have to fire one these incapable staffs of mine, and hire a more, should I say, qualified worker.” With that, she gives a triumphant smile.
I stare at her like I am staring The Great Australian Reef magically appearing before my eyes – utter disbelief. I look at Kath, her hands on her mouth and I know she’s trying to hold herself from crying.
Once, she showed me the picture of her mother lying, but smiling weakly, on her bed with her little sister grinning a crooked, toothless smile wrapping their mom in an embrace -and I just could not imagine how on earth they are going to survive if Kath is not working – it’s just…cruel.
And I look at Nance. Who on earth is this ghastly woman? Who does she think she is? I think in disgust. And suddenly feels how stupid everything is, and how in the world did I manage to keep up with such atrocities for such a long time.
“You know what, you can’t fire me. Why? Cos I quit.” Whoa. I don’t know where on earth did that come from, but it sure as hell feels right to me.
There is a deafening silence in the café like somebody has decided to click the pause button. I suddenly have the weird urge to laugh and cry at the same time due to the craziness of the whole thing. In one swift motion before all hells break loose, I turn around, pull off the “The Sea’s Nest: Serving sealife on your plate!” apron, and leave the café, letting my legs carry me as fast as they can.
Turning a corner just nearby, I immediately fall down on my knees, trembling. Sitting on the wet pavement, I hold my throbbing head between my two hands; all the while my mind is swirling with only one thought: oh my God, what have I done?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
(Note: Story can also be found here under the pseudonym hazydreamer. Many jazakkumullahu khairan to abookunwritten for giving me the chance to post this story on their blog first and for allowing me repost much later onto my own)