Between Two Women
By Zainab Ghulam Abbas
This is reproduced from the original type-written manuscript.
It incorporates the author's hand-written annotations and corrections.
See also: Ghulam Abbas
Reproduced by kind permission of Christian Abbas
"Love? My foot," she said with a sneer. "Who can believe in such nonsense these days. My husband said he loved me, but soon found out that I was not what he wanted, and so he left me, and now I'm forced to work in this horrid bank."
The woman, as she spoke, glanced about her nervously. She was wearing a low-necked yellow jersey and a tight-fitting blue skirt, a necklace of amber-coloured beads hung about her neck. A woman in her late twenties, she was not pretty but a certain voluptuousness in her features made her somewhat attractive.
She was sitting on the edge of a deck-chair on the sand. Before her expanded the vast open sea. The sky was cloudless and was almost of the same colour as the sea, so it was difficult to distinguish where the one ended and the other began.
Nor could the woman to whom she was speaking be called pretty, but her features were more harmonious and her expression gentler. Wearing a simple cotton print frock she appeared to be as much at ease as the other was agitated. She leaned back comfortably in her chair with a book open on her lap. She had been listening, though not very attentively, to a long tale of personal woes. She felt a faint interest in the other woman.
They both belonged to a party that had come down to the beach for the day. It was a function that took place in early March every year. It was organized by a certain bank. Most of the participants had brought their wives or friends with them with the intention of making a day of it by the sea. In all there were about twenty people.
The manager had come for a short time and finding that all arrangements were in order had left with dignity in his blue limousine. It was his policy to do all he could to gain the happy co-operation of all his staff. The food had been excellent and the bank manager's praises were on every tongue.
The tide had been high during the lunch. It had packed the picnickers close about the white-sheeted trestle tables which had been set up on the dry sand. The sea was now fast receding. The party stretched itself across the new, hard, shining wet sands. Camels had already carried away some of the more boisterous members of the junior staff. Others were drifting off in twos or threes down to the water's edge. The senior officers relaxed in chairs, enjoying the warmth of the winter sunshine and dozed away the after-effects of the hearty meal.
"Look at that young man," said the first woman all of a sudden, pointing towards a broad-shouldered, slim-hipped young man who stood a little distance away with his back towards them, talking to a group of young female visitors. "That tall one over there; he knows how to behave. I would not mind one like him. What do you think?"
The second woman listened but did not respond. Only a faint smile flickered over her face. Suddenly the first woman seemed to remember something.
"Oh, how silly of me," she said. "We have been talking for at least one hour and I still don't know your name. Are you one of the guests. How is it that I have not seen you before?"
"Oh, no," answered the other smiling with unaffected charm, "I am not a guest. My name is Mrs Dastoor, but call me Feroza. My husband is the new touring representative of the bank. He is not due back for another week but insisted that I should come along today. I didn't really like to leave the children but, so as not to disappoint my husband, I came."
Just at this moment a young man strolled towards them from a group of clerks, a camera swinging at his side.
"Pinki," he said, smiling at the first woman. "May I have the pleasure of a snap?"
Feeling flattered, but pretending that she did not care, Pinki answered coyly: "You may not!" But she was soon on her feet, patting her curls into place. Mrs Feroza Dastoor had felt some embarrassment at first but when she realized that she was not involved she was relieved and watched them with some amusement.
After the snap was taken the young cameraman said to Pinki:
"There are other gentlemen who also wish to be honoured by your company."
Pinki, at this second compliment, felt even more flattered and coquettishly consented to accompany the young man. After excusing herself from the company of Mrs Dastoor she left her embroidered bag containing her swimsuit, a silver cigarette case which was a souvenir of some earlier romance, and a towel. She arranged herself under the pink shade of her umbrella and accompanied him across the dry sand to the men.
Feroza, feeling hot, drew her chair back a little into the growing afternoon shade of the low, undistinguished line of cliffs which bounded the bay. She tried to read but soon she was attracted by the gleam of the sea. She closed her book and her thoughts drifted towards her husband.
How different it was with her. She had been fortunate to get a man who, though poor, was a devoted husband. Compared with Pinki's life, how simple and contented hers was. She longed for the comfort of his presence. If only he had been here it would not have been necessary for her to listen to the intimate details of a life so remote from her own.
She regretted also that children were not permitted on these outings. The beach, after all, really belonged to the children and she began to watch the antics of two little boys and a baby girl who belonged to some other party and who were daring the rippling waves that fringed the sand. Gradually she dozed off.
When she awoke Pinki was again in the chair beside her. She looked at her watch. Only half an hour had elapsed. How slowly the time was passing.
"You weren't long," she said turning to Pinki.
"Oh they just took a few snaps and then someone thought of Suzanna, the girl who works in the canteen. She's not bad looking, so I came away. Of course I could have stayed if I'd wanted to, but the men weren't worth it: just mere clerks."
For some time they sat in silence, then Pinki began again:
"Oh I so hate the office, where all day long I remain shut up. You are lucky not to have to go to work tomorrow at nine o'clock."
"But you can't knock off at five o'clock when you have children."
"Oh no; that is true. I had one once; terrible it was. It went with its father. What good would it have been to me now?"
Feroza gave no answer and again there was a lapse in the conversation. The camel cavalcade was coming back. Some of the women had gone down to watch. More snap-shots were being taken amid much hilarity. The party was assembling again. Tea had been made and was being handed round in cups. It was refreshing, for the day had been hot.
A last bathe was proposed. It was Pinki who proposed it. Some said the afternoon had grown chilly and retired, while others were being persuaded.
Pinki ran to the chair where Feroza had remained seated all this time and dragged her out of it.
"Come on, Feroza," she said. "Be a sport."
And before she had time to protest, Feroza found she had been acclaimed among the bathers.
In spite of all Pinki's efforts only four or five young men from the junior staff finally consented to a plunge. Except for Pinki and Feroza, all the women of the party excused themselves from bathing on one pretext or another.
The bathers changed and went in twos and threes down to the sea. Feroza and Pinki drew over to the left, towards a point where the rocks jutted out into the water. Both had been sitting most of the afternoon and were glad at the opportunity of a little exercise. They meant to swim back along the length of the beach to the main party which was already sporting in the water opposite the picnic site.
On reaching the line of rocks, however, a charming little bay revealed itself beyond. They were quite alone. The foreshore of the bay was strewn with shells of many kinds. Both women at once began to pick up the prettiest they could find. Feroza, filling her pockets with those which would please her children, included some large ugly ones with holes through them which she could string up for the baby.
Pinki chose only those small delicate ones, flushed with pink, with an occasional spiral one for variety. She intended flooring the bottom of a flat green bowl which she would cover with water as an original center-piece for her table. Both women became so absorbed by their occupation that they didn't notice the time passing and were startled to hear shouts coming from the party on the beach.
"Gracious me," said Feroza. "We must run or we will be left behind."
"No, let us swim," said Pinki.
"But what shall we do with our coats and shells?"
"We'll send one of the bearers back for them."
So they hastily found a flat stone and heaped their coats and shells upon it and ran towards the sea.
Pinki was in first. For a few minutes she splashed at the water's edge, getting used to the chill. She threw her arms about, sending up a spray of drops. Then she lay on her back, her large soft thighs beating up the waves, her head thrown back.
Feroza stood on the shore, a little hesitant. At last she took the plunge and, with a few deft strokes, was well out into the water, heading for the point of the rocks which had to be rounded.
Pinki saw her friend and called to her.
"Wait!" she cried, "I'm coming."
She hurried, splashing her way through the water to Feroza and, without stopping, churned her way noisily ahead.
The sea was an oily green and warm. A peculiar buoyancy could be felt in the deeper water.
"I don't like the feel of it," Feroza thought as a further swell heaved her involuntarily a yard or two forward. Having noticed it, she kept cautiously near the rocks. But as Pinki splashed by she passed into unsheltered water, the surface of which was broken by an unpleasant swell. Feroza called Pinki to come back into the shelter of the rocks. But it was too late. Pinki was already in difficulties, although only a couple of arms' lengths ahead of her friend.
"The current...!" she cried, as she was swept along, feet foremost, on the movement of the water. Suddenly her legs were drawn back and under her. As her head jerked forward a single cry of "help" had time to pierce the silence of the sea about them.
Feroza's first impulse was to swim towards Pinki and try to save her. But the sea was unaccountable and the current vicious. Who could tell whether she would be able to reach her friend in time? Might she not find herself in similar difficulties. There would be no one to come to her rescue should this occur as the line of the rocks hid them from the main beach where the rest of the party was assembled.
Then suddenly a question flashed across her mind:
"Is this woman worth my sacrifice?"
Almost at the same moment, images of her dear husband and her children rose up vividly before her. For a second she hesitated and then she made her decision.
She struck out with all the strength of which she was capable. But she was swimming back towards the shore.
Some spelling, punctuation and paragraphing have been adjusted.
Otherwise this story is a precise reproduction of the original manuscript.
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