Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: PHONE (11/10/16)
TITLE: For Whom The Bell Tolls
By Shoba Sadler
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I shared a house with five people, all of whom were Sri Lankan refugees except for Yogan, who ran the household like the Godfather.
He looked the part too, with his oily hair combed back, sporting a diamond stud in one ear and always clean-shaven. He arrived in London seven years ago as a student, worked hard and bought a petrol station. Eventually he became a permanent resident and married Kavitha, a Sri Lankan refugee in London, a year ago.
I was a Malaysian student who could not resist the offer of rent-free accommodation for several months in return for cleaning the house once a week.
The usual morning bustle ensued with everyone getting ready to go to their respective jobs. The only sign of the deadly phone call was a sullen and red-eyed Maniam.
"Suji, could you please buy these groceries at Safeway once you finish work?" said Yogan in decent English laced with a Sri Lankan accent as he handed me the list. "Raja should be driving home then. He can pick you up."
Raja nodded. The boys were busy grabbing coats and bags as they shuffled to the door.
"Not you, Maniam," Yogan asserted as they were about to file out. "You won't go in to work today. Have a good day, boys."
I caught the train to college in the morning and worked at McDonald's in the afternoon. I was fluent in English. I counted among my friends, middle-class students and British-born colleagues.
"So what's up with Maniam?" I asked Raja in the car, on the way home.
"The army invaded his village looking for rebel fighters and took his brother away," Raja replied.
"Why didn't he come to London too?"
"Not everyone gets an opportunity."
I braced myself for the aroma of Indian cooking to assault my senses when we walked into the house.
I could not put the groceries down fast enough to escape the blare of the Tamil movie in the living room. I glanced at the dhal curry in Kavitha's hand as she invited me to dinner with a sweet smile. I politely declined and fled.
I remembered asking Yogan once, "Must you people have this every day?"
He only chuckled. In the evenings he was a different Yogan. He watched Tamil movies with Kavitha and the boys, got boisterous over fight scenes and emotional over tear-jerkers.
More dead-of-night phone calls would follow for the duration of my stay. More bad news. Once, after such a call, I heard Yogan's newborn son crying softly outside my door. I was the only one who had a bedroom downstairs.
"What are you doing?" I asked upon finding Yogan cradling his son in the living room at 2 am.
"My mother's dead. Heart-attack. She never got to see my son."
"I'm sorry." I sounded awkward and insincere.
"Go back to sleep."
The next deadly phone call came one last time before I moved out to live with college friends. Total silence always accompanied these calls. No crying. No sound of movement. I envisioned everyone holding their breath in bed, lying still and hoping it was not for them. Everyone except me.
Ironically, this time, it was for me.
The following weekend I was moving house. Ravi, Raja and Maniam carried my boxes to two cars and when I was ready to walk out I saw my housemates, standing in a line to the front door. Kavitha handed me an envelope. It was a plane ticket to Malaysia to attend my father's funeral.
"I can't take this." I gave the envelope back. "Whose stupid idea was this?"
Yogan stepped forward and cleared this throat. "Suji, the boys and I pooled our money to buy the ticket. They insisted they wanted to contribute."
"Well, you'll just need to get a refund. I've accepted I can't afford to go back with my mom under financial strain now. Why can't you accept it too?"
I stopped at the door at Yogan's trembling voice, "Because we can't say goodbye to our loved ones, but you can."
I turned around and watched in tears as the envelope passed hands one by one down the line of my housemates, to reach my hand.
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