THE KOFFEE KAT
The coffee shop was airy with two huge black porcelain cats at the entrance. Tables and chairs spilled onto the balcony overlooking the lake. It was the place to be, the hangout for the ‘in’ crowd. There were celebrities of the known and unknown, the gang bosses and the businesspersons, the journalists and writers, musicians, the young wannabe stars and the fading ones. Ahmed took his place every day at the same table, the same spot and the same time. He was a creature of punctuality and habit. His table situated on the balcony in an alcove was such that he had his shade even though the sunshine streamed in. He had the added benefit of a lateral view of all who entered and left The Koffee Kat coffee shop. It gave him great pleasure, a kind of voyeurism, to observe people when they least expected to be noticed. In this way, they revealed their character and personalities.
There was the slow rhythm of music twice a week to soothe the aching nerves of stress or lighten the atmosphere for business deals and negotiations. By Ahmed’s astute observation, he could tell the stirrings of each table with its occupants. He was an old man. Old, he thought wistfully. Would you consider sixty elderly? He was witty and had a mind constantly on overdrive. A person of few words, but as a journalist his pen spoke the language of his hearts desire. There he would spend many hours chewing on his pomegranate seeds, sipping mocha java coffee with a dollop of cream and smoking the apple and cinnamon hookah. As a regular at The Koffee Kat, all who knew him, from the manager to the waitrons reserved his table at that time of the afternoon when the sun had passed its zenith. Sometimes he would allow his wife the pleasure of a leisurely afternoon in his company enjoying the convivial atmosphere of the surrounding. As much as Ahmed was successful, he was humble. He never took the time to spend mindless hours chatting. He would rather make mental notes of mannerisms, dialects, habits and subjects. A quaint nod of his head was the only acknowledgement he gave to anyone who greeted.
On one such afternoon, he was sitting at the table when a young woman took the seat directly across him at his table. He was naturally stunned at her audacity.
‘I think you are at the wrong table,’ he smiled politely.
‘Oh no, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. You see all the chairs are occupied, the place is full and this was available.’ She made a wide sweep with her hands.
‘You must be mistaken . . .’
‘No, I am not,’ she said emphatically. ‘Why should you have a table all to yourself surrounded by three empty chairs? The impudence of it,’ she scoffed.
Nobody had ever spoken to Ahmed with such tenacity and effrontery. He folded the newspaper, tucked it under his arm and indicated the waitron. Paying his bill, with extra money to cover the cost of his intruder’s bill, he made to leave. She sat silently observing this and as he stood up to leave, she placed a hand over his. The sensation was electrifying.
‘Don’t go. I’m sorry,’ she pulled her hand away.
He did not just feel his heart racing; he heard it as the pounding of a drum at his temples. She was very beautiful without the mask of makeup like the others. Her doe- shaped eyes became smaller as the tears brimmed on the surface. He sat down graciously and apologized.
‘This is my ‘alone’ time,’ he indicated with fingers. ‘Sorry for being rude. I do not like being disturbed.’
He watched the tears spill over then just as quickly she brushed them away. He lifted his finger to summon the waitron.
‘A pot of herbal tea, and croissants with jam for the lady.’ She opened her mouth to protest when he said, ‘You look like you need some energy. I can assure you this is an instant ‘pick me up’.’
Her smile transformed her waiflike face. ‘You are too kind. I had the most awful day and just needed to get away.’
‘Get away from what? Surely you are not running away from yourself?’
She pouted her lips in stubbornness. ‘If you don’t mind I’d rather not talk about it.’
He respected that. He watched her nibble on the croissant like a dove and then indulge herself in sips of tea. Her mind seemed to have drifted as she ignored his presence. She was ethereal. There were words to describe her but he was bereft. The clock above the entrance ticked away the minutes as he wished that it would stop and just stand still. She dug into her purse, ‘It’s taken care of,’ he dismissed the searching. She lifted her head with a smile. She astounded him.
‘You’ve been sitting in my company for almost an hour. Surely you can indulge an old man with your name.’
Therefore, it tickled his brain. She looked like Lara, the part played by Julie Christie in a movie opposite Omar Sheriff. He racked his brain for the name of the movie but failed hopelessly. He extended his hand. ‘Ah, a chance meeting, but a pleasure.’
She was delighted as she put her dainty hand into the rather large proffered hand. His hands were perfectly manicured and soft. ‘Actually the pleasure and gratitude is all mine Mr . . .?’
He realized he was holding her hand longer than expected. ‘It’s Mr. Khaled.’ He pulled his hand away quickly as if scorched. Damn! She was young enough to be his daughter!
‘You are such a gentleman, Mr. Khaled. Wish there were more men like you in this world’ She slithered off the chair in a swift movement, placing it exactly as it had been before she arrived. ‘Au revoir.’
His eyes followed her graceful and very gracious exit. Her curtsy of thanks as she bobbed her head to the maitre’d made his toes curl.
That night as he sat with his typewriter he could not dismiss the thought of her. He stared at the blank page, tapped a few words then erased them. This he did repeatedly. He had not felt this way in many years, a feeling that was a mixture of anticipation, restlessness and euphoria. He had suddenly in his body the elation of youth and the imagination of a thirty year old. Ahmed paced and smoked wiling away the hours as sleep eluded him. His mind streaked with alertness and images of what a young woman like Lara could offer him. This was in many ways serendipity! His wife, Mariam looked at him in consternation. She knew this restlessness. She had seen it before. It had to be about another woman! Her beloved Ahmed tried to take another wife once. She put an end to his cavorting and managed to give the woman a notorious reputation so much so that she left the city and never returned. Mariam simmered with disgust. A man of his age, how could he abandon a wife who always stood by him? She was mortified. Yes, he was a handsome man, intelligent and very gentle and kind. He was never any trouble except that once. Considering what all the women in the neighborhood said of their husbands, her Ahmed was a saint, she scoffed.
That night Mariam set his cup of coffee beside his typewriter with biscotti, she stopped and looked at him. He sensed her scrutiny and looked up into her trusting face.
‘Who is she?’
‘I don’t know what you are taking about.’ He changed the subject, ‘Tell the maid not to move my stuff around. I hate looking for my things. I want it where I leave it.’ He shuffled around as if looking for something important but unable to find it.
Her stolid stare was enough to kill any philandering man, ‘For your sake,’ she said very vocally, ‘I hope it is not another woman.’ She walked out of the room with her head held high. He watched her leave in an awkward silence.
Ahmed walked to the long wall mounted mirror and gazed at his appearance. He had to admit he looked dashing at his age. Few wisps of grey at the temples, his grey, neatly trimmed designer beard gave him an erudite look. He was balding a little at the crown and he had bags under his eyes. He adjusted his chrome-framed spectacles then sucked in his stomach. Thank God Almighty he did not have a paunch.
The meetings between Lara and Ahmed were very frequent. He remembered there second meeting. His palms were sweaty from anticipation. He burst into laughter so often these days in her presence, being ever so eager and excited about their meetings. She thrived in his company. He discovered she was a dancer. Their friendship blossomed into a special bond of love. Every day as they stood at the very exit of the Koffee Kat, they were breathless in an overwhelming moment of two souls meeting even though their bodies never touched. Lara closed her eyes. He took his forefinger then traced her lips like the soft wings of a butterfly. Then he pressed it to his. Her eyes flew open . . .
‘I love you. I am leaving for another show in a few hours. Come with me.’
She breathed all the promises of tomorrow and all the regrets of yesterdays. She filled him with exhilaration that made him feel feather footed and floating. He captured her hands in his then held them to his wild heartbeats.
‘This is what you do to me. I would love to but I cannot.’
He watched the tears spill as she pulled away and walked off. Ahmed walked the streets for hours questioning and pondering his decision, he a man of sixty with a huge infatuation and love for a woman who is twenty- five. Was he insane? He must be! No man in his logical sense of mind would feel this way. Such things only existed in books not reality. His sauntering saw him arrive at the taxi station. Without hesitation, he stepped into a taxi and sped towards the airport.
Mariam called the police to report her husband missing. It was almost two days and he did not return home. She could not stop herself from telling them that he was most preoccupied recently- an attribute of senility. The police called at the Koffee Kat, alarmed by the information they received. He simply vanished after the blonde-haired woman left town. He has not been to the shop in days! They speculated about the friendship, others thought they were exactly what each other needed. Following the trail of the missing famous writer, the police went to the renowned Hall of Dramatic Arts in another city. They followed all the leads they possibly could until they saw a poster outside the Hall advertising the name of Lara Champillion, principal dancer for The Nutcracker. All the tickets to the concert were sold out. Everyone took their seats when they peeped through a side entrance. The debonair old man sat at the front row in awe. Watching the performance, they could understand now, why he just walked out on his life.
Later, much later as he escorted the breathtaking Lara away from the Hall, they approached him.
‘Why did you not inform anyone?’
‘Blame it on sheer insanity, madness so profound that only an old man like me would understand.’
‘Then why did you do it? Your wife awaits you!’
‘I wanted to recapture an element of my youth, just a sip of nectar, of innocence and arrogance before the end of my days. Age and wisdom burdens me. As for my wife . . .’ he just shook his head.
‘You left your wife and home for her?’ They looked almost accusatory as they slid a look up and down Lara.
‘No I haven’t! I took a vacation from boredom and routine. I will return when I am ready.’ Throwing a shrug he said, ‘Blame it on God! Sometimes He allows us to do things to gain a different perspective. A caution my friend, we have a great friendship not a great love affair.’ He turned on his heels and walked away fleet footed to the waiting Lara’s open arms. They stared after him in silence. If only life was this simple! They saw a new perspective to man’s folly and recline into old age. They pitied him on his return home.