Watermelon, Roses and Leyla.
“Please fetch me some fruit from the market, dear.” Mr Khalil called out to his young wife, Leyla, as he lounged on the daybed. It was a hot afternoon in the medina and Leyla welcomed a chance to escape the airless room.
“Watermelon!” He called out again, just before she closed the door. She walked down the cool stone steps and through a courtyard filled with dusty sun beams. When she stepped out the wooden door onto the cobbled streets, Madame Jaber called out from her balcony,
“Good afternoon, Leyla!” Shielding her eye, Leyla returned the greeting with a wave.
Leyla adored the souk and watching the buzz of its people. Today she had tickled a monkey, squealed at the fish monger’s gory catch and gasped at the trickery of backgammon players who sipped tea under the shade of grape vine canopies. The air was perfumed with spiced honey, fresh mint and sweet flowers plucked from the mountains beyond the city.
“Please, take it.” A young man appeared from the shop doorway, offering a rose.
“No thank you,” Leyla smiled coyly and continued to eye the ripe and colourful fruit of the green grocers next door.
“A rose such as this should not be refused.” The man inhaled his offering. On noticing his eyes were different colours, Leyla turned her back.
“My name is Karim.”
“I must go,” Leyla paid for her crescent of watermelon and walked away with the perfume of that rose lingering in her memory.
“Thank you, dear.” Mr Khalil said with pink melon juice dripping down his chin. He finished every last bit. “You chose the sweetest one. Sweet, just like my Leyla.”
The next day, when Mr Khalil had gone to work and Leyla had finished all the chores, she went shopping in the souk. As was habit, Mr Khalil had left her some money on the kitchen table should she need anything. She decided to buy some watermelon for his return.
Madam Jaber was beating the dust from a tired rug clinging to the balcony. “Good afternoon, Leyla.” She called down.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Jaber.”
The souk rarely changed but Leyla always found something new to admire. This time it was Karim.
“Ah you returned.” Karim put down his tea cup when Leyla passed the florist.
“I just came to get some Watermelon.” She had already chosen her watermelon crescent and as she waited for the greengrocer to return her change, her attentions were caught by Karim’s fragrant flowers. “You have beautiful roses.”
“Tea?” Before Leyla could answer Karim was already pouring golden mint tea into a clean glass. Leyla crossed the florist threshold and looked around at all the beautiful roses which filled the air with such a tempting scent.
Karim smiled. “I collect them myself. Every morning I climb mountains to pick the best ones. No body else sells these.” He fingered the delicate petals of a large red beauty. “Please sit down.” Karim patted a stool next to him.
“I better not, I must go.”
“Then please take this.”
Leyla accepted the rose he held out and her hand brushed Karim’s. “My name is Leyla,” she added.
“Promise you’ll come back tomorrow.” Karim urged after her as she turned her back to leave. She pretended not to hear his request.
“Did you buy anything thing nice?” Mrs Jaber called from the balcony noticing Leyla returning with a shopping bag.
“Just some fruit. And a dress.” Leyla replied. That evening after she served her husband dinner with a smile on her face, Leyla presented him with watermelon.
“You look beautiful today, more beautiful than that rose.” Karim’s rose stood tall on the kitchen windowsill, exhaling its sweet mountain perfume. Leyla didn’t hear him for her mind was far away.
The next day after Mr Khalil left for work, Leyla happily rushed through the chores then put her new dress on. She skipped down the stone steps and floated through the courtyard and the heavy wooden door.
“You look nice today, Leyla. Where are you going?” Mrs Jaber called down.
“Shopping,” she replied. The fact was that nothing in the souk interested Leyla anymore, nothing that is, apart from Karim.
When she returned home with only roses and a big grin Mrs Jaber became suspicious, even more so when Leyla made a daily habit of it. One morning she followed Leyla dressed in a full covering so as to keep hidden.
“Can I speak with you in private?” Mrs Jaber called down to a weary Mr Khalil when he returned from work. Mr Khalil climbed the stairs to Mrs Jaber’s front door. He wiped away sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and tucked it into his leather briefcase. His eyes widened when Mrs Jaber told him about Leyla’s daily habits.
When Mr Khalil went home Leyla was in the kitchen preparing supper. Leyla paused looking longingly out of the window as she hummed to herself. Perhaps she was day dreaming of Karim.
“What did you do today Leyla?” Mr Khalil demanded, startling Leyla. In her dreamy state she hadn’t noticed her husband observing her.
“I cleaned the house. Cooked supper, went shopping. The usual.”
“Mrs Jaber said you came home with empty hands again.”
Leyla began to sob.
“Tell me what’s wrong, my sweet rose.”
She turned to him, unable to look into his eyes. “I’m sorry, but I love another.”
Mr Khalil wasn’t angry. He didn’t shout or interrogate. Leyla placed his supper on the table, packed her bags and left home. Mr Khalil sat the his kitchen table and wept. Karim welcomed Leyla with open arms and a warm bed.
Leyla passed her days working in Karim’s shop and avoiding Mrs Jaber. In the mornings he disappeared to the mountains. He spent the entire days there because he knew Leyla was attending to his customers. In the afternoons, Karim drank tea and played backgammon while Leyla hurried too and fro. Then when she closed the shop, she made him supper. After supper she cleaned their bedroom at the back of the shop. Mr Khalil never came to ask her to return.
“Can I come to the mountains with you?” Leyla begged Karim one morning.
“No Leyla, it’s far too dangerous.” Leyla missed the outside world. “Stay here and tend to the shop.” That Leyla did.
“Can I go to fetch us some supper?”
“No Leyla, I will go to fetch it.”
“Can I buy myself a new dress?”
“No Leyla, I haven’t yet found a money tree in the mountains. You will have to make do.” Leyla looked down at her threadbare dress. Leyla began to do her chores and gaze longingly outside as Karim became ever less accommodating.
“You do not sell enough flowers, Leyla. And what are you looking out of the window for?”
Later that day as she swept, Leyla saw Karim offer a rose to a beautiful young girl. She hung her head and sighed.
“Mrs Jaber!” Leyla could hardly believe her eyes as her old neighbour came to visit her one early morning.
“Leyla, I have news for you. Mr Khalil was taken sick some days ago and passed away.” Leyla collapsed at Mrs Jaber’s feet. Reluctant to comfort her, Mrs Jaber left after delivering the news.
Leyla wept and sobbed. She closed the shop and cried her eyes out. Her tears began to form puddles on the floor. The puddles joined and became pools. Leyla didn’t notice when the pools reached her ankles as her face was buried in her hands. Still Leyla sobbed.
The salty tear pool rose higher and wilted the roses. Leyla did not notice. The waters lifted her, still she did not stop crying. They carried her high until she reached a small window at the back of the shop. The tears poured out and carried her away down the street. They carried her to her old home, and laid her softly down on the ground outside the wooden door. There she lay sobbing until strong arms lifted her up.
“My sweet Leyla, you came home.” It was Mr Khalil. Leyla embraced him. Mrs Jaber watched all from her balcony.
Karim returned to his shop to find all his precious flowers spoiled in a soggy heap. So angered he was that he left the medina for good. He didn’t care for Leyla; there were plenty of other girls in other cities who liked roses.
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