When my Father The Engineer brought home Abdul The Carpenter for the first time, we said he was loud and dirty. He wouldn’t stop talking, his words tumbling out in the manner of one who couldn’t believe he’d found someone to talk to in his language. The desert sand and dust clung to his clothes and skin, giving him the sort of grey pallor that even scalding showers couldn’t wash off.
Abdul visited us once a week after that. Every Friday, he would catch a bus that brought him from Camp and deposited him in the city. My father would pick him up. He would eat, thanking my mother; sometimes so effusively she felt embarrassed, and later guilty for not cooking a bigger spread. He would then take out the international calling card from his shirt pocket, retreat to the balcony with our cordless phone, and call home. He would give his family his love in installments, small parcels every week. His wife and child waited for his calls, of course, but they were happier on days they received part of his salary. When the card came with few extra minutes, he would ask my parents to speak to his wife. They would convince her he was doing fine, yes, eating well, yes, we shall take care of him.
Abdul spent the rest of his afternoon watching TV with us. He didn’t tell us what he wanted to watch, but he always seemed happier when we switched to Tamil channels. Sometimes, if we had eaten too much, we would take a nap, and he would continue watching TV, eyes half closed, trying to keep himself awake with jerks of his head. He never missed his prayers, and we learnt to look the other way as he retreated to a corner. My father would deposit him at the bus stop after they had their tea, and Abdul would then wait to be ferried back to camp.
Sometimes Abdul would ask me questions, about what I studied, the friends I’d made, learning Arabic in school, if I remembered my family in India. He was generous with his affection, trying to place me in a daughter-shaped hole he possessed. He talked about her often, how he feared she might not remember his face, and how these days she didn’t seem too excited when he called.
“I’ve been away too long,” he whispered.
He constantly worried they would get used to life without him.
I told him I almost forgot my father before we came to Kuwait. He wanted to know why.
“Appa was in Kuwait for a long time,” I said, “before he came to take us.”
“I felt like I was meeting someone new.”
His face resembled crumpled paper then, but I went away to do my homework.
Over weeks and months, Abdul’s presence at home on Fridays became normal. He offered to make us a cot, and we didn’t refuse. He gave us a list and we bought those things for him. He cut and sanded the wood, smoothed it till it shone, made the sharp edges blunt. He said we shouldn’t have to pay him, but my father won the battle of wills, pressing into his hand dinars he wouldn’t spend on himself.
Abdul told us how he met Saar, which is what he called my father. A group of workers had been assigned some tasks where my father worked, and Abdul had observed him all day. Eventually, as the work day threatened to come to an end, he had felt brave enough to go up to this man and ask,
My father had bought him tea and they spoke: about where they were from, and this country they found themselves in, where it seemed like they were needed and not wanted. Abdul’s description of his living quarters, the Camp, was vile enough that my father asked him to come home for lunch, if only to get him to stop talking. Men on top of men, the race to the shower stalls every morning, the queue for dinner: makeshift houses in shifting sands.
One Friday afternoon, Abdul wasn’t seen at the usual spot. My father asked around and we found out he had left. In a great hurry, apparently. He had bribed someone to get his passport back and bought a one-way ticket with his savings.
A month went by, and we received a call. My mother answered.
“Akka!” she heard through the static.
It was Abdul.
Crowd Favourite and Editor’s Pick this week! Thank you for the votes and the thoughtful feedback.
This is what Asha had to say:
This week, in another strong grid, Anusha gets my pick. This was a carefully paced work that allowed the plot to unfold gently, while keeping the reader engaged with rich imagery. The mix of dialogue and exposition helped draw the reader into the lives of the characters, while the child’s POV allowed the reader to excuse a glossing over of less prominent characters. Anusha struck a good balance between curiosity, distrust, and disinterest in her narrator’s voice. This story was also notable for what was not in the text. The interaction between the narrator and Abdul was filled with subtext and emotion, as was Abdul’s sudden, unexplained departure, and the surprise phone call. The ending, because the threads weren’t neatly resolved, allowed the reader to continue the story off the page.