Saleema had become rigid when Hassan pinched her, raising her shoulders but keeping her eyes on the skillet.
Resting a hand on Hassan’s shoulder, Rafik said, “Uncle, why do you bother this poor girl? What has she done to you?”
“You should ask, what hasn’t she done to me.” Then, after a moment, “The hell with it, she’s a virgin ever since she rowed across the river, how’s that? Don’t ‘Uncle’ me, when you’re my own uncle.”
He threw down his apron, and left the kitchen, saying to the village cook, “Watch out for Kamila Bibi, young man. Mian Sahib doesn’t care what he eats.”
As he walked past Saleema, carrying a tray of food to the living room, Rafik made a funny stiff face and then winked.
That evening the weather changed. This wasn’t the season for rain, but just before dark the wind from the north had begun to blow across the plain, bending the branches of the rosewood trees like a closed hand running up the trunk to strip off the leaves, throwing in front of it a scattering of crows, which flew sloping and tumbling like scraps of black cotton. The rain spattered and made pocks in the dust, cold as rain is before hail. Then it fell heavily. Rafik had taken the drinks into the living room at seven, as he did every day. The food sat warming over coals, there was nothing further to be done till the bell for dinner rang at eight-thirty. The others were in the verandah of the servants’ sitting area. Saleema leaned against the long table, while across from her Rafik sat on a stool. The dim bulbs with tin shades hanging from the ceiling threw a yellow light which left the corners of the room dark. Neither of them could think of anything to say, and Saleema kept wiping her eyes and her face with her dupatta as if she were hot.
When the rain became hard she said, “Come on, let’s go see it come down.”
They walked awkwardly through the empty dining room, which smelled of dust and damp brick, then through an arcade to the back verandah. A single banyan tree stood in the middle of the back lawn, the rain cascading down through its handsbreadth leaves. Saleema leaned against a pillar, Rafik stood next to her, his hands behind his back.
“God forgive us, there’s going to be a lot of damage to the straw that hasn’t been covered,” he said.
“This will even knock down the wheat that hasn’t been cut. Look at how hard it’s coming down.”
She looked over at him, his serious wrinkled face, his stubble. Despite the rain, moths circled around the lamps hanging from the ceiling. She kept bumping her hip against the pillar. Come on, come on, she thought.
Finally, he said, “Well at least they haven’t started planting the cotton yet.”
She turned, with her back to the pillar. “Rafik, we’re both from the village, we know all this.”
He looked over at her quickly. His face seemed hard. She had startled him. Then he did come over.
She put her arms around him. “You’re thin,” she said, as if she were pleading, “you should eat more,” exhaling. The water splashed in the gutter spouts. He also pulled her into his body and held her, melted into her, she was almost exactly as tall as him, his thin body and hers muscular and young. He kissed her neck, not like a man kissing a woman, but inexpertly, as if he were kissing a baby. She kept her eyes open, face on his shoulder.
The electricity went, with a sort of crack, night extinguishing the house and the rain-swept garden.
“Let’s go, little girl,” he whispered in her ear. “They’ll be calling for me.” In the darkness, with the other servants hurrying to bring lamps and candles, no one noticed when Saleema and Rafik returned to the kitchen.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...