Proud to announce ‘The Rose Within – A Gothic Romance’ has won a Silver Medal in the Global E-book Awards in the ‘Mystery – Fiction’ category!
This is only the initial stage of Ramadan, but I’ve been contemplating a lot on the purpose behind this Holy month, my connection with my Creator and Islam in general. So far I’ve reached the following conclusions which are very basic in their scope but nevertheless are notions to ponder over:
1) It may sound as a cliche but fasting actually equips one to be tolerant and disciplined. We take food and water for granted – in our daily routines we fail to acknowledge what may be a daily struggle for many poverty-stricken people around the world. Even so we are still lucky Alhamdullilah that when we open our fast we have clean water and fresh food to eat – millions don’t. Irrespective of whether it is Ramzan or not, we should always think of the poor and must help them every chance we get. Every time we sit down to eat and see the luxurious food God has bestowed on us, we must always think of helping the poor and those who can afford should make it a habit of doing so on a regular basis. People are literally dying of starvation and diseases. Don’t waste money on unnecessary luxuries; if you have money spend it on the needy.
2) Secondly and this is something we should observe all year not just in Ramadan – whilst we are fasting we refrain from things we would normally do such as the usage of foul language, backbiting and arguing – if we can refrain during Ramadan, why not eliminate these sins altogether?
3) Thirdly when we focus on the Quran and its deeper meaning we come to realise Allah created us for a reason – it is up to us to decipher what that reason is remembering that we have a short time in this world to fulfill it. Wealth, children, career and other worldly goals are not the answer and should not be the basis of one’s raison detre (meaning of existence). Then what is it? This is up to every individual to reflect on.
4) When we come to realise that we serve Allah and that come what may Allah is always there for us, He forgives us for our sins, He helps us when in need ultimately we are accountable to Him – we must then focus on our duties towards Him. This does not mean one should adopt an isolationist policy – by all means live harmoniously and help one another as much as possible, but don’t give too much importance to any one human to an extent that we are unable to focus on God. This becomes a sort of ‘shirk’ when we give precedence to certain people over everything else that we are unable to focus on our duties towards Allah, we are unable to be thankful to Him for His blessings – all that matters to us is being happy when that person whom we obsess over calls us, become sad when they don’t – no one is permanent in anyone’s life but Allah is there for us from birth till death and in the Hereafter. Help people, we need one another – but don’t obsess over anyone.
Let’s all strive to become better humans InshAllah and be kind to each other, be courteous to each other and understanding. Let’s be tolerant, forgiving and let us follow the right, moral path which Allah has set out for us.
I apologise to anyone I may have hurt at any point in my life intentionally or unintentionally.
Have a blessed Ramadan!
Forgiveness is better than vengeance. Compassion is better than cruelty. To accept someone with all their imperfections; to see beyond the cracks of a broken mirror, to embrace a damaged soul, that is what makes us human and humane. At least that is what I believe in.
I was sixteen when my father found a new job as an engineer and we were compelled to relocate to Newbury in Berkshire. I had recently completed my GCSEs, and it was now time to embark upon the two most crucial years of academia which would catapult me into my future. Little did I know my sixth form years were not just going to impact my academic life, but something a lot deeper than that, something more intimate – my soul.
It was my first day at Junctions Sixth Form College, and I remember the anxiety I experienced upon seeing crowds of students, boys and girls, all strangers chattering away, most belonging to affluent families. I had a humble background, and my father had climbed the social ladder, but he wanted me to get the best education, hence my admission in a private school. I felt like a pariah; I was, in a manner of speaking. I was always a shy girl, slim with shoulder-length dark brown hair and curious brown eyes. I hid in the shadows. I was always a recluse, and at that juncture, I felt like I was on an alien planet, or indeed I myself was the alien.
‘Hello what is your name?’ I suddenly heard a voice behind me.
When I whirled, I saw a skinny girl with long, curly dark hair and an enormous smile on her face stare back at me with her small yet attentive and playful eyes which carefully scanned my face. She wore casual clothes and truth be told in comparison with some of the other girls who wore smart and it seemed expensive clothing, her jeans and top made her appear very simple.
‘Oh, I’m Susan.I recently moved from Newcastle.’ I paused, feeling too under-confident to match the girl’s over-playful demeanour. She barely stood still and almost danced like a child to the sound of my words.
‘That’s great, Susan! It is so nice to meet you. I’m Violet. I really hope you’ll settle down smoothly at Junctions, and if you need anything, do let me know. I’ve been a student here all my life.’ She winked as she completed her mini-speech.
I did not know what more to say as Junctions was clearly her home; she knew it inside out. I was the outsider, and so I just nodded. She continued staring with that same gigantic smile on her face, perhaps wanting it reciprocated. I forced myself to smile feebly, thinking this was probably the last time Violet would speak to me after finding how bizarre I was. But to my utmost surprise, she warmly patted my arm, maintaining that huge smile as she walked on to the next new-comer.
I felt quite hot. No doubt it was September, and it was beginning to grow cold outside, but inside the induction room the radiators were boiling – and so was I. This was combined with the fact that the room was small and teeming with people. The difference in social class, the odour of wealth stifled me. With my lungs constricting I walked out of the building across the parking area into a garden with an apple tree to get some fresh air. My father had told me to mingle with the students, but I just could not, not at that moment. So I stood there in the apple tree garden all alone amongst its autumnal burgundy splendour.
Eventide had emerged, and all that remained in the grey sky was a florescent red-orange; a sunset that had set the skies on fire. I admired nature in all her beauty and tenderness. It was the only thing in life that comforted me, especially at times of social angst. I wondered at that moment if I would ever fit in; would ever be able to befriend a student belonging to a different social strata or would I be looked down upon.
I meditated for a while until the gentle breeze began to soothe my nerves. I have to confess, I was famished. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Noticing how isolated I was, I clandestinely plucked an apple and approached a lonely bench and sat on it. It was perhaps the most crimson of apples I had ever seen, and just as I was about to take a bite, I heard a voice from behind.
‘You always say that, you and your excuses. I’m so disappointed in you.’
I paused to listen, but was met with nothing but silence.
In the evening breeze, I could not hear the crunch of the leaves, so I could not quite tell whether the girl had left or whether she was still there. But I decided to sit motionless not knowing what course of action to follow. After a few moments, I again decided to take a bite from the apple when I heard a soft weeping. She was still there. I stood up and walked behind the huge apple tree that separated us.
As I silently crept behind the tree, I saw a tall and slim female figure lean against it. She wore a flamboyant beige blouse and a short grey skirt; fancy clothing in comparison to Violet’s simple attire. She had lustrous dark, velvety long hair and a slim yet curvaceous physique. She wept, mobile phone in one hand. She clearly looked posh. I was silly enough to have sneaked for I inadvertently stepped on a twig, which snapped; the girl suddenly turned out. She was pale; in fact, her skin was white as snow. Her face was exotically carved with chiselled features and blood red lips. But what caught my attention more than her unique beauty was the mournfulness on her face.
It was a facial expression a child would normally make – drooping lips, teary eyes; yet she was a full grown young lady. Truth be told, she looked a lot older than me because of her fashionable raiment. She wiped her tears, and I exclaimed, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry! I was sitting on that bench over there, and I just came to see whether you were all right?’ I stood still, nervous.
She again wiped the remnants of her tears and flung her velvet hair back before saying rather coldly, ‘I’m fine,’ and turned her back towards me.
I felt worse than I had earlier in the evening. At least Violet had been warm and welcoming. This girl, narcissistic as she seemed,was so blatantly icy towards me . . . yet something in me said I should not walk away.
I spoke again. ‘Would you like to eat this apple? I plucked it from the tree – maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did. I’m not really hungry, and I was wondering if you might want it?’ The truth of the matter was I was starving, yet to console this girl who exhibited such heartfelt melancholy, I extended my hand with the apple.
She looked at me again with that same child-like sorrow before moving forward and taking the apple from my hand. Without thanking me or indeed even looking at me, she took a bite and stood still, munching away, recalling her upsetting phone call, I assumed.
‘Well, I’d best get going. Don’t stay out here too long. It’s getting cold.’ I wanted to talk more, but seeing her blank stare, I paused and turned to leave.
She then spoke. ‘Thank you . . . for the apple. I didn’t get your name?’
I looked at her and smiled, my lips quivering. ‘Susan, today is my first day at Junctions.’ I giggled softly.
After another blank stare, her beautiful lips finally widened and with them so did her sparkling dark eyes. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Susan,’ she said, gently biting the apple. I had assumed she would introduce herself with her name, yet she did not.
So I thought it best to simply ask. ‘Likewise . . . and . . . you are?’
She looked at me with haughtiness in her eyes though continued to smile. I watched the curve of her throat as she gently swallowed the piece of apple after which she said mellifluously, ‘My name is Evangeline.’ I am almost certain I imagined the sweet sound of a harp melody as she spoke.
The first term had passed, and it was nearly time to break off for Christmas. During this phase, I had bonded well with Violet and a new-comer, Mary. The latter was similar to me, shy and gentle. Unlike most of the other students, Mary too had a humble background like myself. But out of all the girls at Junctions, the one that stood out the most was Evangeline. All the students talked about her; praising her beauty but more often criticising her arrogance. Some of the girls envied her; most of the boys yearned for her. She was in many ways a perfect American high school cheerleader. I, on the other hand, was that ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ we normally see in Hollywood teen movies.
I focused on the humanities, and so my subjects were different from Evangeline’s who was studying Art and Photography. We barely had any classes together except for English Literature.
During our classes together, Evangeline would be lost in her own thoughts, oftentimes awakened by our tutor. Each time I would glance at her, she would be staring at Derek, a rather handsome student that most of the female students idolised. I however could see the ugly soul Derek possessed; he was vain, a show-off and conceited. I knew that he was Evangeline’s secret sweetheart; I had observed her behaviour, but I decided not to divulge this to Violet and Mary.
‘She comes from a very wealthy family,’ said Violet as we sat together in the library one day and watched Evangeline walk by. ‘Even though we’ve studied together for years, she barely talks to me.’ It was no surprise, given the arrogant girl Evangeline was. Since my first encounter with her months ago in the apple tree garden, she had actively ignored me.
‘Maybe she’s just upset about something – personal issues, I mean – and maybe she’s not that bad if we get to know her,’ I said meekly giving Evangeline the benefit of the doubt.
Violet laughed; it was one big laugh. ‘You’re so simple, Susan, so timid, in fact. The whole point is, she doesn’t want to get to know us. She never did, and she never will.’ She continued to laugh.
Mary, a lovely girl with round, rosy cheeks and big eyes, concurred with Violet. Perhaps they were right, I thought. Snobbery was a vice which I despised.
Mr Reynolds, the Head of sixth-form, had once asked me to deliver some documents to the art teacher. When I had entered the art room, the teacher was not there and in fact all painting easels stood lonesome save for one. Evangeline stood before it and sketched. I debated over the idea whether to approach her or not. By that stage, I did not feel so under-confident as I had on my first day, mainly because of the comfort and support from Violet and Mary.
So, I walked towards her. ‘Hi there, sorry to disturb you. I’m looking for Mr Gareth,’ I said.
She turned around arrogantly, slighted by the interruption. I stared partially in fear, and partially in awe, then said again, ‘Mr Reynolds wanted me to give him these documents.’
Her dark eyes scanned my face, my terrified expression, and with a sarcastic smile on her lips, she said, ‘Well, he isn’t here. You could leave these on his desk,’ and she continued sketching. I caught a glimpse of the sketch – she was making a portrait of Derek.
‘Wow, that’s a beautiful portrait! Who is he?’ I pretended. She turned around again, an intoxication in her eyes and a touch of mockery on her delicate lips. ‘As if you don’t already know?’ She raised her eyebrow.
I too plucked some courage. ‘As a matter of fact, I do. I just hope he appreciates your work. I think your creativity is spellbinding.’
As I said this and moved to turn around, she motioned me to stop with a puzzled expression. ‘You’re always so nice to me though we barely converse. May I ask why?’Again sarcasm flowed from her eyes and lips.
‘Somehow I have the ability to see through people. Their souls, I mean. You appear haughty on the outside; you are, in fact. But on the inside, I think you’re hurt.’ I paused.
She stared at me; it was no longer the blank stare, but a rather stern one. Maybe I had said too much. Without saying anything further, I just left the art room.
The day before the term ended, we had a Christmas party at school in the conservatory. Loud music thumped, the disco lights spun and the clamour of noises and humour once again sickened me. I despised shallow pleasures. I did not drink alcohol, and I did not have a sweetheart. There was no reason for me to be part of the mayhem.
Mary and Violet both had family commitments and therefore could not attend. But my father had wanted me to, which is why I had to force myself to participate. Similar to the induction day, this rave-party-like uproar became completely unbearable, and I walked out and headed towards the apple tree garden. For some odd reason, that particular location soothed my nerves and my soul. Perhaps it was because of its isolation from the rest of the premises.
It was freezing; one of the coldest winters in England. I sat on the bench huddled, battling the cold but taking pleasure in its serenity. The icy winds slapped my face, yet their assault was more pleasurable than the inhumane thunder insider the conservatory. I despised a disruption of tranquillity. I adored nature in all her colours.
Lost in my thoughts, I heard a voice behind me. It sounded familiar; it was Evangeline. ‘You’ve lied to me again. Why Derek, why?’ she cried.
This time, it was not a phone call. Derek responded, ‘Stop it, all right? I’m tired of your clinginess. You’re one drama queen, and honestly I don’t need you in my life. I have many other girls.’ Derek’s mean voice faded in the background as Evangeline’s sobbing grew louder.
At first I thought, if I approached her again, she would lash out, but then I could not just sit there and let her cry. I walked up to her from behind the apple tree; she was again leaning against it. It was growing colder by the minute, and I held onto my shawl which was wrapped around me, tightly.
‘Evangeline,’ I said, and she turned around but did not look directly at me.
Her beautiful face, drenched in tears, shone under the moonlight.
‘I’m sorry,’ I began. ‘It is not my place to say this, but don’t cry over something as worthless as this. I mean, it’s almost Christmas.’ After a pause, I added, ‘You deserve better than him.’
She finally made eye contact with me but continued to sob. ‘Why do you care, Susan? I’m not even friends with you.’ She spoke coldly, yet I could see through her; that underlying sorrow behind her beautiful eyes; that vulnerability behind her superficial stiffness, I knew she was completely broken.
I did not speak further; instead, I noticed she was wearing a long dress with a short jacket on top and shivering from head to toe. I removed my shawl and put it around her. She was shocked for a moment; frozen. I became afraid, thinking I had perhaps been too forward. But to my utmost surprise, she stared at me with such immense sadness in her eyes and, rather than snubbing me, she extended her hand as a friendship truce. I timidly and comfortingly held it. I knew at that juncture, more than anything else, poor Evangeline needed a friend. For me, she was a unique friend; I had never known a rich and beautiful girl like her ever in my sixteen years of existence; though she was arrogant and narcissistic, I could sense a fragile layer somewhere beneath that cold exterior.
I felt there was some magic in this uncanny friendship which was born on that wintery night in the apple tree garden.
With the arrival of the new term in the wake of an early spring, a new friendship had blossomed between Evangeline and myself. Violet and Mary were dumfounded, as was everyone else. She ignored most of the other students and only hung around with me. We spent hours together studying A Streetcar Named Desire. There were times when Blanche Dubois reminded me of Evangeline. Misunderstood, fragile and broken.
My other friends, however, thought otherwise, the cavalry to the rescue. ‘Are you sure she’s sincere with you, Susan?’ inquired Violet with disbelief in her alert eyes. ‘I’ve known Evangeline for a very long time – she thinks we are all beneath her. I just don’t want you to get hurt at the end,’ she continued.
They had clearly misunderstood Evangeline. Maybe she just could not open up to everyone; she was arrogant indeed, but she needed someone to reform her. ‘Violet, I think we need to give her a chance. I know she’s not friendly like you or Mary, but that’s just her personality. She’ll change, one day. I’m sure of it.’ But sweet and kind Violet shook her head in disbelief. She had doubts about Evangeline and felt she had an ulterior motive.
I, on the other hand, was too overwhelmed by this unique friendship to think otherwise. Oftentimes, Evangeline and I would sit in the apple tree garden where students rarely ventured. To them, it was too abandoned a place; I loved its detachment from the rest of the world, and Evangeline felt the same. We would pluck apples and eat them, throw them at each other and act like ten-year-olds.
‘What does your father do?’ she inquired on one of our apple garden adventures.
‘Well, he is an engineer. We are not well off at all, and truth be told, he is struggling with the second-year tuition fees. If we cannot afford it, I will have to move from Junctions to a state school.’
Evangeline looked at me with deep concern. ‘No! No, I hope that doesn’t happen. You’re my best friend; I can’t lose you. If your father cannot afford the fees, I could ask my dad to give you a loan – he’s an investment banker.’
I grew quiet, ashamed. ‘No, Evangeline – if there is one thing my father has taught me, it is never to take any favours from anyone. If it’s meant to be this way, then it is. But I promise, even if I go to another school, we’ll always be friends.’ Saying this, I gave her another apple.
As time passed, I did now and then see Derek and Evangeline exchange glances and assumed it meant nothing. He had abandoned her, and she disliked him very much. ‘I’m hosting a party at my place this Saturday,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you come and see my house and meet my friends?’
I felt uncomfortable. Violet had told me how grand Evangeline’s house was in a very posh locality, and Mary had spoken of Evangeline’s socialite friends who went to another prestigious school. I felt torn.
‘Oh, come on,’ she insisted. ‘You cannot stay in your comfort zone all your life. Live a little!’ For her sake, I decided to go though I felt very odd going without Violet or Mary.
When I did, it was just as my friends had described it all. The grand country house in gated premises with a swimming pool and a BMW and Mercedes parked in the front entrance. I suddenly did feel sick. If Evangeline had seen where I lived, a small shabby apartment near the town centre with second-hand furniture and no car, how would she perceive me? The interior of her mansion was surely extravagant – chandeliers, expensive antique furniture, LCDs and what not. Evangeline greeted me warmly and as she continued with the party preparations, I sat quietly on a sofa and watched her friends assemble one by one – they were indeed shallow socialites with eccentric blow-dries, designer bags, jewellery and high flown talk.
Most of them bragged about their wealthy fathers or the designer gifts they had received from their boyfriends. I felt like a fish out of water.
‘Is your dad a banker, too?’ asked one of the bimbos quite haughtily eyeing me from head to toe and seeing how simply dressed I was.
I humbly replied, ‘Umm, no . . . he’s an engineer.’
She looked disinterested but continued talking anyway, ‘So what do you and Evangeline have in common? I mean, what do you both do when you hang out?’ She was openly sarcastic.
I, however, matched her sarcasm with sweet candour. ‘Well, she and I spend a lot of time in the apple tree garden, in our school. We sit there for hours talking about life, trying to work out why Tennessee Williams gave Blanche a sad ending?’ As I spoke, I saw the girl stare at me in shock – so did the other girls. Suddenly, after a moment of silence, they all burst into laughter. What had I said that had made them laugh? I was no longer the fish struggling outside the water; I was now almost dying, and the only water that could save me was Evangeline.
The snooty girl controlled her laughter and cleared her throat before saying, ‘Evangeline sitting with you in an apple tree garden? Hahahahahahaha,’ she continued with her vile laughter, and again the others followed.
Evangeline, who had been preparing the table for her shallow friends, infuriately motioned me to come to her and so I did. She took me in a corner and blurted, ‘Why did you have to tell them that? Good God, now they’ll make a joke out of me!’
I was stunned and frankly hurt. ‘Why, Evangeline? What’s wrong with sitting with me in that apple tree garden and talking about literature?’ I almost cried.
Noticing my sorrow, she cupped my face with her ivory hands and said, ‘Sweet Susan, my friends don’t think like you, neither did I until I met you. You take pleasure in the most poetic and simple wonders of life, but we do things differently. To them, sitting on a bench and sharing an apple with a friend is comical—’
I cut her short. ‘And to you, Evangeline, is it comical? All the time we’ve spent together, was that a joke?’
She paused for a moment, and I feared the worst. Then composing herself, she continued, ‘No, it wasn’t a joke to me at all, Susan. But my life is different than yours. I can’t do something as childish as that forever. I like throwing parties, attending parties, I like fashion, I like my friends. I can’t always sit and talk to you about why Blanche had a sad ending. I can’t always sit there with you in that apple tree garden. I just can’t, and you need to be sensible about it.’
Evangeline had officially broken my heart. Unable to contain my tears, I quietly and swiftly walked out of her house, leaving behind the stench of wealth, the stench of vanity and cruelty. I thought she would come after me, but she did not. She stood there in the corner watching me leave.
Though Junctions was closed that Saturday, the premises always remained opened for students. I went straight to the apple tree garden and sat on that lonesome bench for hours on end, crying and wondering why people take pleasure in so callously breaking the heart of another.
As the months passed, my studies intensified; after all, I was about to sit for my A/S Level exams. Since the day of the party, Evangeline had again started to avoid me. I too did not make an effort to reconcile. She had been heartless and so I cloistered myself in the library for days. Violet and Mary had inquired several times about my visit to Evangeline’s house, but I made no comment. They were right, so it seemed, and I was foolish.
Being exhausted with mock exam preparation, I came to the apple tree garden one afternoon. It was March, and the day was bright and beautiful. The skies were azure blue, the birds chirped and the golden sunshine cascaded the sheet of lush green grass of the garden, making it shimmer like a real golden magic carpet. I sat on that lonesome bench feeling somewhat at peace, but deep down inside, I thought only of that horrid day and Evangeline.
As if she’d read my thoughts, from behind the apple tree, I heard a voice, ‘Are you still angry with me?’ Evangeline walked towards me; her skin glistened under the sunlight.
Though I was over the moon to see her, I pretended to be upset. ‘Just disappointed, heartbroken actually,’ I said softly.
She sat next to me on the bench, then said, ‘You once said, no matter what, we’ll always be friends. Do you still stand by that?’
Clearly she knew the answer, given my submissive nature, and so I reiterated, ‘Of course, Evangeline,’ and I grew quiet.
‘Do you want to prepare notes on A Streetcar Named Desire together for the mock exam?’
‘Sure, why not?’ I said before growing quiet again. For the remainder of the time while we sat on the bench, we both were quiet and stared into space, the cool and comforting winds embracing us. Was Evangeline inherently kind or cruel, was her haughtiness a mask covering her vulnerabilities, my thoughts vacillated.
‘I hope she hasn’t reconnected because she wants your help with the mock exam?’ whispered Violet, raising her eyebrow as we sat together in the library.
‘I don’t think so, Violet. Besides, I think it would do me good, too, if I brainstormed ideas with her.’
But Violet seemed to believe Evangeline was too self-centred. To save me from being wounded again, she said, ‘Just be careful, Susan. You’re a nice girl. I don’t want to see anyone use you.’ Violet was kind, and I knew she had my best interests at heart but I felt deep within me, Evangeline and I shared a spiritual connection and she was not as cold as she appeared to be or as people perceived her – indeed I had seen her gentle side.
I sat with Evangeline in the apple tree garden, and we went through A Streetcar Named Desire a few times, made notes, discussed all the characters and themes – hours passed, the day melted into a grey evening and we were still there. ‘It’s only a paper moon, over a cardboard sea. But it wouldn’t be make believe if only you believed in me.’ Evangeline kept repeating these lines from the play which were indeed very touching and meaningful.
I interrupted, ‘I do believe in you, Evangeline, no matter our differences.’ We exchanged smiles and moved on to a preparation of Othello. I really did believe in her.
The following day, I decided to do something special for Evangeline. I had prepared a small apple pie for her and took it straight to the art room first thing in the morning as I knew it was her first lesson that day. I again found her alone sketching something on an easel, and so I interrupted, ‘Another portrait of Derek?’ I inquired sarcastically.
She turned around to reveal the sketch – and, lo and behold, it was a portrait of me. ‘What, is that really me?’ I squealed with joy. This was the first time someone had done something so special for me, and I was ecstatic. ‘I mean, I’m not even that pretty, Evangeline!’
She continued shading the sketch, then exclaimed, ‘There, it’s done!’ Saying that, she carefully tore it off the easel so as not to damage the portrait and handed it over to me. ‘You are pretty and special, Susan, and this is how I see you.’ Her words had brought tears to my eyes. It is astonishing how one person can bring both tears of joy and tears of sadness to us – but this is life. She, too, was overjoyed to see the apple pie and claimed she had skipped breakfast that morning. She quickly grabbed a fork and devoured it.
Soon after, the mock exams took place and whereas I attained an ‘A’ for English, Evangeline scored a ‘B.’ But this made her incredibly euphoric. ‘We should celebrate! It was almost impossible for me to have scored a “B” had I not had your help!’ she exclaimed, overjoyed.
‘It wasn’t me, Evangeline,’ I replied. ‘It was all you. Please don’t give me any credit.’
For a while after our mock exams, we continued to discuss our final exams in the apple tree garden, and sometimes the conversations would careen to other topics. ‘Do you still miss Derek?’ I asked one day.
She seemed stunned but quickly composed herself. ‘No, I don’t. I mean, you heard how rude he was to me. Why would I miss someone like that?’
I then continued, ‘What about your other friends? Do you still spend time with them?’ I asked meekly.
She again answered nonchalantly, ‘Now and then. But I admit I enjoy my time most with you.’ She smiled.
As usual, Violet and Mary maintained their distrust of Evangeline, who never spoke to them; there was no doubt in the truth that Evangeline was far too consumed in her own world, but I always chose to look at the positive side of things maintaining my friendship with Evangeline as well as Violet and Mary.
On one particular morning, my Psychology class finished early. Wanting some fresh air and solitude, I wandered off to the apple tree garden. To my utmost shock, I saw Evangeline standing with Derek under the apple tree; they were whispering before Derek slipped something into her hand – I caught a glimpse of a tiny packet. She then giggled before kissing Derek.
I was clearly shaken, yet I stood there motionless. She suddenly noticed me and retreated quickly, hiding the packet.
‘Susan, what are you doing here? I thought your class finishes at 11!’
She panicked, and I knew I had caught her off guard.
Derek kissed Evangeline again before making an excuse and leaving the garden. We stood still, almost in the form of a confrontation. ‘I thought you said you didn’t want him in your life any longer, not that it’s my place to intervene, but . . . I thought we had no secrets between us,’ I said meekly.
She seemed irritated but composed herself.
‘Evangeline, Derek isn’t an honest boy. He will only use you and—’
Evangeline cut in. ‘Susan, I am sick and tired of your motherly lectures. It’s my life, all right? It’s my business whatever I do. You really shouldn’t intervene.’
Furious, I exploded, ‘You’re mean, Evangeline. I’m the only one who likes you or talks well behind your back. The other students don’t even like you. You’re heartless.’ I then suddenly grew quiet. My legs trembled, and my heart pounded – why had I said this to her? I should not have, but I had and, though I regretted it, I stood quietly, battling the tears welling up in my eyes.
She shook her head a few times, then giggled sarcastically.
‘Thank you for being honest, Susan. I think we’re done here. Thanks for the apple pie.’ She strode away from me.
‘Evangeline!’ I cried behind her, but she continued walking as I stood helpless and wracked with guilt. This was not me, but she had pushed me to the edge of the precipice. I sat on that same lonesome bench and once again cried.
A few days had elapsed since the unfortunate confrontation, and I had not seen Evangeline. I had not received any phone calls or emails from her, though I had sent her a long, apologetic email. I grew worried. The funny thing was that Derek, too, was absent from class, and the rest of the students were oblivious to the entire situation.
While sitting in the apple tree garden one morning, hoping Evangeline would miraculously come, Violet approached me. ‘Have you heard?’ she said, patting my arm so as to comfort me.
‘Heard what?’ I was horrified fearing perhaps something awful had happened to Evangeline.
‘I don’t want to be the one to tell you. Frankly I don’t know how to. You should speak with Mr Reynolds, really’, she whispered nervously and then left for her class. I went straight to Mr Reynolds’ office and inquired.
‘Quite frankly, I don’t wish to divulge this to you; however, as word will gradually spread and we will be required to inform the other students, you’d might as well be the first one to know this,’ he said, and I prepared myself for the worst. ‘Evangeline and Derek were caught exchanging drugs in the apple tree garden. Cannabis. This was not a one-off incident. Some members of staff reported this was happening since the first term, and Derek has confessed. They’ve both been expelled. They won’t be coming back to Junctions.’
I was shocked, my heart raced and I felt my skin burn with anxiety. ‘But Mr Reynolds, what about Evangeline’s final exams?’
He cut me short, ‘If they wish to take their exams, they may do so from a private centre, but not from here. If there isn’t anything else, Susan, I really have some important work to be getting on with.’
I walked out of Mr Reynolds’ office feeling heartbroken and lifeless. Evangeline had betrayed me; she had used me when she needed a sincere friend; and what was I? Nothing more than a pawn in a game. All the time we spent in the apple tree garden; it was nothing more than a sham. A cover-up, it was a secret rendezvous with Derek. Nothing more. I went straight to the apple tree garden and sat on that forlorn bench and cried my heart out. The only two people who comforted me sincerely were Violet and Mary; upon hearing my tale of woe, all they said was, ‘We are all human. Let it go.’
Throughout the remainder of my time at Junctions, I never once returned to the apple tree garden. In fact, I started spending more time at Violet’s and Mary’s homes and them at mine. We ended up becoming the best of friends. But often during our conversations, hesitantly of course, I asked if they knew what became of Evangeline. The emails I sent her had bounced, and her mobile number had changed. I had once plucked up the courage to visit her home, but I was told she had moved to America.
Was it all a dream? I wondered. All those magical moments with her in that apple tree garden? How could it all have been a game?
‘It’s only a paper moon, over a card-board sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe if only you believed in me.’
I did not know what to believe in any longer. My soul was wounded. Yet, deep down inside, I knew that, despite the drugs, despite the vanity, despite the lies, there was a goodness of some sort in Evangeline; a fragility, a broken and damaged soul.
After completing my A-Levels, I won a scholarship to UCL to read English. It was there I met Oliver. We shared the same passions, the same ambitions, the same mind-sets and eventually we fell in love. Soon after we graduated and Oliver secured a decent job as a journalist, he proposed. Without giving it a second thought, I said, ‘Yes.’ He was kind, gentle and noble – in many ways, a dream come true.
A year after our marriage, our daughter Cherry was born. She was frail and delicate, just like me, with brown hair and sparklingly curious brown eyes.
After my marriage to Oliver and with the birth of my little angel, I confess my memories of Evangeline faded. The magical moments in the apple tree garden, the laughter and the ensuing pain, it all evaporated. My life was peaceful and beautiful. Violet and Mary, too, had found their life partners and had children. Violet had a son called Tim, and Mary had a daughter whom she named Emma. We met now and then, and our children played together.
One day when Cherry was three and asleep in my lap, with nothing to do, I started flicking the channels on TV. On one music channel, I saw a girl in a music video who looked extremely familiar, but due to her heavy make-up she was indiscernible at first. Upon a closer inspection, I could not believe it, but it was Evangeline! I later learnt through Violet that she had a modelling career in America and that she had married a model, too.
Though I was happy that somehow, in the way she wanted, things had worked out for Evangeline, there was always an evanescent feeling of sadness that stung me. It was her betrayal perhaps, but more than that, it was a premonition that no matter how glossy her exterior life, there was something tragic beneath. But alas, I assumed her model husband had given her the posh and lavish life she was accustomed to, which made her happy.
We lived in London until Cherry was seven, when Oliver was offered a Lectureship by the University of Reading and we then relocated. Reading was not that far from Newbury, and oftentimes I thought of my time at Junctions but never ventured close, for I did not have the courage of seeing that apple tree garden again. Instead I turned to writing and commenced with a piece called ‘The Apple Tree Garden’ recounting that magical yet doomed connection that was born many years ago now at Junctions. However I struggled with the ending. Many a times I held my pen to conclude the story but it simply faded to black.
Oliver had purchased a semi-detached house in a decent locality in Reading with a huge back garden. Himself a man of humble origins he had given me a perfect life filled with love and compassion. Upon munching a slice of an apple, it was mischievous little Cherry who suddenly said one day,
‘What if we could have an apple tree in our back garden, Mama?’
She was my daughter, and indeed she had a spiritual connection with me. Perhaps I was re-living the past vicariously through her; perhaps we had an uncanny telepathy.
It was not a bad idea, though; we planted the seeds and waited for months. Of course the tree took a while to grow, and when it did, it was like any other ordinary tree, devoid of apples. ‘At least we tried, my love.’ I kissed her soft cheeks. She was like a ballerina, confident, cheeky and playful. My little Cherry was my best friend and my kindred spirit.
I had a small reunion with Violet and Mary, and during our tête-à-tête, Mary suddenly announced, ‘Did you all hear about Evangeline?’
I looked at her in surprise. I had not heard Evangeline’s name in years, neither had I seen any photos of her in magazines nor any mention on TV. ‘What, what has happened?’ I asked, fearing what I might hear.
‘She got divorced! What’s worse is that her model husband stole all her assets, her entire inheritance. Someone was telling me that she had to move back from America and that she and her children now live in an apartment somewhere near Newbury. Her family has no contact with her and neither do her friends.’
I was stunned. For a time, I thought of locating Evangeline if indeed she was near Newbury and meeting her, but then I thought of our final showdown. It was brutal on both our parts, and in many ways, I had moved on. My love for Oliver and Cherry was far greater than those cherished moments I spent with Evangeline in that apple tree garden.
Coincidentally, both Violet and Mary moved to Reading as well, and frequently Cherry, Tim and Emma played together. Each of us would take turns to arrange a small get-together at our houses for our children. It was only a month ago I decided to pick up Tim and Emma so that the three little munchkins could have a play date at our house.
It was 4:00 pm when I returned home. Summer was at its peak, and it was an extremely bright and beautiful sunny day. Oliver was at home, it being a Saturday. As I rang the bell and all the kids stood behind me chattering away and giggling, Oliver opened the door, looking thrilled. ‘You seem excited! What’s happened?’ I asked as the children ran inside the house.
‘Darling, there is someone here to see you. She says she’s an old friend. She’s waiting for you in the back garden.’
An old friend? That was odd. Indeed, I do have a long list of friends, but I still was not very social, and so I wondered who this friend could be. When I entered the back garden, I saw a tall figure standing and staring at the barren apple tree, her back towards me. She wore a long, summery light blue dress, and she was slightly heavy. Her hair was tied up in a bun.
I felt completely confused as if an intruder had invaded my house. Oliver was far too innocent, I thought. ‘May I help you?’ I inquired.
The woman stood still, her back towards me. She did not reply. For a moment, I felt frightened and repeated my question but again got no answer.
Thinking perhaps she was hard of hearing, I walked up to her. Just as I started speaking again, she turned around. For a moment, I only stared at her, trying to absorb what I was seeing; trying very hard to believe I was not dreaming. A relic from my past – Evangeline – stood before me. Time had altered her, no doubt; that youth that she possessed, that freshness and gloss of a ripe apple had faded, though she was still beautiful. She did not embrace me, nor did I approach her. We only stood still silently.
Suddenly the children dashed into the garden scampering and giggling – they were oblivious to Evangeline’s presence, preoccupied with their own jokes, their own laughter and their own dreams. I motioned Evangeline to sit on the bench in the garden, and she obeyed.
We both sat quietly for a few moments before she broke the silence.
‘It’s been too long, Susan. I just want to say I’m sorry.’
The years had softened her, I could see. The arrogance, the stiffness, it had vanished. All that remained was a sort of brokenness in her dark and teary eyes.
‘Give me a moment,’ I said. I went inside the house up to my room, rummaged a few drawers and grabbed a piece of paper that I brought back outside. Evangeline looked surprised, as if I was about to admonish her. I handed her the piece of paper. When she unfolded it, a sentimental smile crept on her fragile lips. It was the portrait she had sketched for me, now yellowed with time. ‘You still have it?’ she asked with joyful disbelief.
‘I had cherished it, Evangeline’ I said, smiling back.
‘It’s only a paper moon, over a card-board sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe if only you believed in me’.
I said softly and looked at Evangeline who continued to smile and blinked with pleasure, something she did in the past.
‘I always did believe in you, Evangeline’ for it is true I knew that beneath all the darkness, Evangeline had a light, a light called a conscience. Blanche Dubois was not alone at the end – she had the rarest and most marvellous gift of all, a true friend; one who always believed in her even in her darkest hour.
She then suddenly stood up and exclaimed, ‘My children are alone at home; I need to leave. I only wanted to see you Susan. Now that I have, it feels wonderful’.
I could tell she was hesitant or probably afraid and so I extended my hand to her. For a long time she stood still and just as I was about to retreat my hand, she suddenly clasped it and slowly glanced at me with that same sarcastic smile she gave me once upon a time and after a prolonged pause, I too smiled back.
After Evangeline’s departure, I felt at peace; as if a storm had subsided; I had achieved the closure that I needed for over a decade. I asked Oliver to join me in the back garden and we both sat on the bench, his arm lovingly around my shoulder as he whispered in my ear, ‘I love you’. Just then Cherry started squealing,
‘Mama, daddy, look, look’.
I got frightened wondering what Cherry had witnessed,
‘What is it dear?’
Oliver too became worried. ‘
‘Look up there Mama, on the tree, can you see?’
I looked up at the branches but saw nothing’
‘No, what is it love?’ I asked again.
‘It’s an apple, look closely Mama’ she again squealed with euphoria. Indeed when I did look closely, beneath the umbrella of leaves and branches, I beheld a tiny green unripe apple. “
‘It really is an apple Cherry, we did it’ I squealed too with joy and lifted Cherry in my arms kissing her repeatedly.
I then came and sat next to Oliver again – he had a peaceful smile on his face and stared at the embryonic apple.
‘Here’s to new beginnings?’ he looked at me romantically and kissed my cheek.
“To new beginnings” I replied and rested my head on his shoulder. It was at that precise moment I knew exactly how to end my story and I beamed with exhilaration.
Cherry, Tim and Emma continued to play and giggle around the apple tree in yet another apple tree garden which marked the one thing in life we all need, love.
“The sun rises and fades,
The flowers bloom and wither away,
Night falls and the stars glow,
When morning comes my heart is still filled with woe,
You are not here with me, you are gone,
My life is empty; it sings a tragic song,
I ask myself must everything beautiful end;
Why does love always have to bend?
And a voice answers ‘no’; love always transcends,
With a new morning, the radiant sun, and blossoming flowers,
Though the days have passed and painful were the infinite hours,
All that has gone returns,
Love that is true forever burns”
It was Christmas Eve and the year was 1899. The snow had shrouded the streets of London and children sang Christmas carols in choirs on the streets. Holly and bells decked the lamp-posts; children frolicked with excitement, their parents carried wrapped gifts; t’was the perfect season to be jolly. Yet Captain Knightley sat somberly on an antique rocking chair in the main hall of his lonesome house; the embers in the hearth had died out. He was a man accustomed to harsh weather conditions – all his youth spent on the sea had hardened him; he had grown tenacious physically, though he always had a fragile heart and a brooding soul.
He had only been eighteen, a young lad when just after Christmas he was to go on his first ever expedition as a naval officer. But he wanted to make that Christmas special. He had decided to propose to his beloved Amelia, a young beautiful girl whom he had known since they were children.
That Christmas Captain Knightley plucked up bravado and at a particular moment when both he and Amelia stood under the mistletoe in the main hall of his house, he proposed. Amelia looked at him with forlorn eyes – for she had committed herself to another. It was not very clear to Captain Knightley whether Amelia loved him or not for she touched his hand gently and quietly walked away.
That moment had surely broken Captain Knightley’s heart. He had imagined that moment time and time again – in his fantasy, Amelia would have said ‘yes’ and they would have kissed under the mistletoe. But that did not happen – in fact that most brutal rejection had struck Captain Knightley like a terrible storm rattling a ship.
Amelia had married soon after and had left for France. For some years Captain Knightley’s only abode was his ship. He was a talented young man and eventually became Captain after his intelligent tactics helped in saving the crew on board when a storm actually struck. He was revered as a brave and noble young Captain. It was upon Captain Knightley’s dying mother’s request he was compelled to finally marry.
When he did, a most excruciating tragedy befell him. His wife died in childbirth and his infant son was stillborn. The grief of losing his wife and child scarred Captain Knightley’s fragile heart. He resigned from his post as Captain and confined himself to his lonely grand house in Hampstead. His mother too succumbed to her illness and Captain Knightley once again found himself alone in this world.
The mistletoe under which Captain Knightley’s heart had been broken by Amelia had of course withered with time. But given the sentimental man Captain Knightley was, he had placed some of the crumpled remains in the Hungarian puzzle box which Amelia had gifted to him as a child as a melancholic memory of his one true love.
It had been twelve years since Amelia had married and in those twelve years, one misery after another had befallen the noble Captain. He had become a cold man; at least he had a cold exterior and he greatly disliked children. It was perhaps because he had lost his own child. He had become a recluse and most of all, he despised Christmas. It was on Christmas that Amelia had left him with a broken heart; coincidentally it was on Christmas a few years later his wife and son had died.
“Christmas! Nothing more than a day which brings back the worst of memories” he thought to himself as he desolately peeked at the remnants of that withered mistletoe in the Hungarian box.
TO BE CONTINUED…….