I peered at the menu on the wall trying to decipher the different delicacies pictured. The young man in front of me and those further ahead in the queue, all had little paper menus in their hands which they were eagerly perusing and discussing animatedly. I looked around but could not see where they had got the menus from.
I plucked up my nerve, leaned forward a little and asked the young man where he had got his menu from. He turned to me and blazed a smile, “Oh! It’s in the back there, ma’am’, he said pointing. I turned and looked past the queue behind me. There was a little stand with the menu and pens for people to pick up on their way in. Even as I spotted it, ruing my lack of observation, aching back, and general city life illiteracy, I heard YM say, “Alisha! Can you please hand ma’am a menu”? A young lady standing outside the queue right next to the stand handed me the paper she was looking at, “Here, have mine”. YM reached around and plucked a pen out of the box in front of the queue and gave it to me. “Here you go, ma’am”. Another blinding smile accompanied the words. It felt strange, being called ma’am and being helped so fervently. People are generally impersonal in their help, and definitely do not smile at and call dumpy old ignorant women “ma’am” unless they are paid to do so.
“Here’s your coffee, ma’am”
“I can certainly help you with that, ma’am. May I start with your account number”?
YM was now sharing jokes with his lady companion, who was still standing a little distance away. She seemed a little wary of his buoyant spirits. I surreptitiously took in the very pumped arms visible below the sleeve of his tee shirt, the square thin line of beard framing his jaw, the very short, spiky hairdo. He even had a chain on his belt. Definitely a happening young man of today.
The queue moved on. YM placed his order, I observed closely how he put his tray of cutlery together and jumped when he said to the man serving him, “Thank you for your help, sir”. A bit beyond old school, this. He walked away with his tray, to the back with the others waiting for their food to be served and their buzzers to buzz. I stepped up to the counter, put my order in, duly received my buzzer and picked up my cutlery. As I moved back out of the way, I noticed the absence of both YM and Alisha. Surely they had not been served already?
By the time my buzzer had heralded the advent of my meal on the counter, and I had limped over to an empty table with my tray of food and lowered my aching back on to a chair, I was feeling downright irritable. I was not sure that I had received value for money in my food. The noise level in the food court was making my head buzz. The table next to the one I had sat down at had no chairs and a pile of dirty trays and dishes piled up.
“May I join you, ma’am”?. My skin slid along my flesh. YM was standing next to the table, two trays in his hands, big, unabashed lopsided grin sparkling in his face. I surreptitiously put my foot through the handles of my handbag under the table, effectively securing it to my leg. At my nod, he set down the trays, conjured a third chair out of thin air, sat down, and shook his paper napkin and placed it on his lap. “Sorry to barge into your thoughts, ma’am, but it is so crowded here. Post Christmas sales are a killer don’t you think”?
He was going to talk? Where was Alisha? Had she run away because he talked too much? I looked down at his trays. It seemed there was food enough for two there.
I nodded at my noodles, trying to school the responding grin that tugged at the ends of my mouth. He noticed the twitching at the corner of my mouth. Scooping a dexterous dumpling into his own, he smiled hugely at me with all the appearance of someone settling into a cosy chat.
“Alisha’s been shopping like it is going out of fashion – what a cliché!”, he said as soon as he had finished his mouthful. I had responded even before I realised that I had any intention to. “Which one, the phrase “going out of fashion”, or the shopping”?
He jabbed his chopsticks at me.
“Ma’am, you are right. The shopping is a cliché. But… here we are.”
He spread out his arms expansively, one arm reaching out to over the food of the people at the next table, the other over the pile of trays on the other.
Oblivious of the startled glances of the people over whose plates of food his chopsticks were hovering, he said, “I bought shoes I did not need. Two pairs. How about you”?
Cautious again, I mumbled, “ A few things I need”. Take that, you too much disposable income earner, you, I thought sitting in my judge’s seat.
“Mmm. These dumplings are delish. Please have one”.
My heart jumped out of my body and took off. I eyed him as he tilted his basket of dumplings towards me. His offer seemed innocuous. I waited for my heart to slump slowly back into my body, then spoke haltingly.
“No, no that is fine, I can barely finish what I have”.
“My mom loves these dumplings, must remember to take some home for her”. He was texting something on his mobile. He looked up. “They’re not quite the same reheated, though, are they”?
I noticed he had stopped calling me ma’am. I knew what he meant, though. I had eaten dumplings made by this particular chain before, fresh, and reheated. I nodded. He seemed harmless. Overenthusiastic. Unusual. I did not know many young people who would strike up a conversation with someone so much older than themselves, especially if that someone did not offer much encouragement to do so. The muscles around my lungs relaxed a little.
I felt I could take on some conversation. “Where is Alisha”?
He waved the mobile towards the escalators. “They are having a red dot sale for thirty minutes at the cosmetic shop downstairs, so she ran. Her phone kept beeping so all her favourited products must be on offer”!
He grinned. “Alisha is always buying cosmetics. Handbags. Shoes. Whatchemyoucall’ems… Accessories”.
He put down his phone and chopsticks and grabbed his face pulling it into a grotesque expression of mock horror.
“Oh. My. God. Am I in love with my own mother”?
I felt my face relax into a genuine smile. “It’s okay. You are safe. Most women are always buying cosmetics. Handbags. Shoes. Even Whatchemyoucall’ems…”.
He relaxed, gulped down some iced tea and winked at me. “Thanks”.
Alisha would probably be back soon. I started to wrap up my lunch. The table was too small for three and I suddenly felt awkward again, chatting to a complete stranger about mothers, girl friends and Asian food. I had eaten all I wanted, so put the crockery and cutlery together and added my tray to the pile on the next table.
“Are you done”? YM looked up from his phone which had just tick-tocked signifying the arrival of a text.
“Yes, I have more shopping I need to do. … ummmm…. Thanks for your company”.
I stooped to pick up my bags and creaked to a standing position, pain shooting through my lower back again. I wanted to wind things up now, not have an elaborate farewell.
“Maa says ‘Hi, Happy New Year”.
“Huh”? Maa? Who, Maa?
I squinted back it him, revising my earlier soft impression. Mad. Nice, but mad.
“You have no idea who I am, do you”?
“What”? He had an idea of who I am?
“See I did not recognise you, either, at first. As soon as I sat down, I remembered. …” He smiled up at me leaning forward eagerly, as if prompting me to remember him, show some sign of recognition. He did not see any.
“I am Ryna, Mehul’s son”. He said. Did he sound a little disappointed?
I plonked back down on my seat, fully looking at him for the first time. He extended his phone towards me, and Mehul’s face smiled up at me from next to the text. “Really? Say hi, and Happy New Year from me” . He tapped her picture and the enlarged photo was unmistakable.
I looked back at his face in wonder.
“I remember all of you visiting us when I was still in Primary school. Nagma and Naishi.”
He paused looking away to those years. He looked back at me.
“How are they, Nagma and Naishi? They used to be so quiet. They hardly ever come to the festivals these days.”
He chuckled. “ I used to hate them, you know. Every time you visited, Rumu and I would endure days of torture”.
“Why can’t you be more like Nagma and Naishi?”
“Look at Nagma and Naishi! So well behaved. So well mannered. They eat up all their greens”!
He looked down at his dumplings and began toying with one.
“And my personal worst hate from Maa. Should I get Sabi Mashi to come and give you one of her lectures?”
Yes. That had been my personal hate, too. All my younger years of raising two children had been haunted by similar taunts. Many had been the times when I had been told tales of how a threat of a visit from me and my unsmiling sternness had made children clean up their rooms, or eat their greens, or get on with their homework. I had forgotten those years.
I looked at Ryna, seeing his spiky, very short hairdo, his smile, his contemporary facial hair styling with more recognition. I remembered how close Mehul and I had been once, going for picnics together, meeting up at each other’s homes and those of other friends. I saw again those years of slowly drifting apart – from Mehul, as well as others, as my solitary nature took over my youthful desire for companionship. Flashes of festivals and large parties shot through in front of my eyes, with a growing Ryna taking the spotlight. Ryna, the Emo with straight black hair down his face, one eye barely peeping through. Ryna, the Goth in black lipstick, and false eyelashes. Ryna with chains coming out of all kinds of piercings on his body. Ryna suddenly turning up at a festival in a tee shirt and a full tattooed arm, setting the community abuzz with speculations of whether did drugs, or peddled them, or both. His arm was clean today save for a small tattoo on his wrist, now. So that had probably been a joke. I could not see any piercings either.
“I don’t hate you now, though”. He leaned forward looking worriedly into my eyes. “ I hope you understand”!
I smiled, reached out and touched his arm. “Of course I do. It has been a very long time.”
He looked relieved. “I often get carried away and say things I ought not to”.
“Oh, no! You did not say anything untoward at all”, I hastened to set him at ease. “I had forgotten the reputation I had during those years. Parents get up to all kinds of tricks in order to raise their children. We were all making things up as we went along. Look at you! Your mother did such a great job of raising you. I am so proud of you! I know she is, as well. We do talk on the few occasions we get to meet.”
“Really”? He looked so wistfully eager.
I caught a glimpse of Alisha coming up the escalators. I gathered up my things again. “Please congratulate your mother on her handsome and wonderful son, it has been totes adorbs to share lunchtime with you”. He laughed out loud at my use of fangirl terminology.
As I walked to the escalators, I heard Ryna’s voice raised in laughter, ”I swear! I know her! She’s my mum’s friend! I was not being weird at all!” Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Alisha raise her handbag, and take a missed swipe at his impeccably groomed head. I took out my phone and went into my “Daughter’s Dear” What’s App Group. “Guess who I met today”.