“What the hell!”
“What happened, sir?”
“These immigrants! Cannot prepare a cup of good coffee? I am leaving for another outlet. She does not seem to be here.”
The bistro felt whipped. The rain was pounding the window-panes. It was a slow Saturday---as weekends generally are.
She was watching the fine rain fall down on the front street and thin traffic. The grey sky reminded her of another place and time.
But this came sudden, unexpected---as a jab in the ribs---painful!
“Sorry! I will personally prepare another fresh cup for you, sir. Do not worry, sir. You will get your regular one---in a second. please wait.”
“Forget it, Robert. And you, if you cannot prepare coffee, what are you doing in Toronto? Go to a warehouse! Do not stick here.”
When the customer left mumbling, crumpled hat in hand, Robert said softly, “Do not mind. We call him Mr. Grumpy. An old widower, often in a foul mood but overall a good guy. Will return in a day or two. A classic dissatisfied customer!”
The bistro did not answer. Her eyes grew red. Breath, uneasy.
The old man stood outside, hat in hand, watching the sky for a few long seconds---then walked out into the rain, right arm outstretched, collecting the drops in his palm.
“You, from India?” asked Robert, trying to divert her.
“On the student visa?”
“I understand your situation. It hurts deep down. I know the feeling. I have been there---know the raw feeling.” She did not say anything. Felt choked. The bleakness added to her suffering.
Robert cleared throat. “Even Jane is not coming.” “Why?” she asked. “Second day---now.”
Robert replied, “Burnout.”
“So fast? She was working hard. Sincere. Honest gal.”
“Tough for students! She is from Serbia. Could not handle the pressure of retail. Decided to quit…a fine woman, ha!”
“Yes. Always smiling. Kind. Helpful. Sorry to hear this!” “She badly needed money…now searching for another job.” The bistro nodded, “Gone through that grind, like her…and many others.” Robert said, “I tried to help her. Tried to dissuade her from quitting.” The bistro smiled. The rain increased in intensity.
“Thanks, Robert, for reaching out in this lonely place. Such gestures! Noble!”
He smiled, revealing a set of pearlies. The formal smile of a colleague. Then: “Doing my duty only. I have seen it all. There were others who did the hand holding for me also… in the initial years. Time to repay in kind. Ha!”
“How is life for you here?” she asked
“Good! I have gone through the process, a few years earlier. Identical journey. Similar bumps. A common route for young immigrants in a new country. Ha!”
“You are from Kenya?”
“Why did you leave your country?” Robert smiled. “For the same reasons, you left India. Searching for something better. Maya?
“Yes, Maya, my name.”
“Nice ring to it, your name!”
Maya smiled. He sat behind the till, absent-mindedly drumming the surface.
He often does that---she thought.
The place was empty. They waited. The water was pooling on the street. The traffic was light. She polished the top of the counter out of habit and watched the entrance. Covid-19 and restrictions! At least, the shop was open!
“Why do you continue in this place on minimum wages? Find a better place, kid Got better degrees than me. Try out some other job.” Robert sounded genuine. Caring. She felt the concern in his baritone and saw it in the kind eyes.
She pondered the question for long.
Robert went on drumming. And whistling softly. The business was slow. Thankfully. Otherwise, managing with three was tough. She had to be more careful now. And attentive.
“Sorry! That was a bit personal…”
Maya replied gently: “No, no, no. Not at all.”
Robert breathed easy.
“I did not want to intrude…” “Not at all, Robert,” she said. “I was going to tell you this.” He looked at the small girl.
The girl with spectacles and a Lord Ganesh tattoo on her arm.
Maya said, “An amusing thing! This…”
“What?” Robert asked, back from another reality, watching the swinging doors.
“Just sharing this detail with you.” “Yes, please!”
“At the back of my tiny student apartment, there is a clump of trees…in a tiny yard with a broken fence.”
“Is it? Safe place, that one?”
“Yes, yes, it is…safe. Quiet also. I like trees. Watch them often.” “Hmm. Trees sooth.”
“Oh, yeah! They whisper also.” “Yes. Heard that.” Robert agreed. “Two of the trees are bare…”
“It is the end of the fall now, in Canada…”
“Yes, I know that. Fall, magnificent!”
Robert looked at her again, a bit puzzled.
Maya looked lost.
The rain beat down on the stacked condo apartments across the street covered in gloom.
Rain slanted and pounded the buildings.
A wind roared.
“So? What does it have to do with you sticking around this lousy place that has got rude clients and uncaring management? These trees, Maya? just curious. Do not answer, if you do not want to.”
She smiled. “I understand your query. The trees, and my staying. Well, well.” “Hmm.” Robert grunted, looking at his smartphone.
She exhaled. “Well, as I was telling you…there are two nests, one each on the bare trees. Fascinating! Is it not?”
“Nests?” Robert asked. “At this time of the year?”
“Yes. Nests on one of the top branches. I see them daily. Stark simplicity in design and beauty…so appealing in structure and functionality…a home from the avian world for humans…as an object of study…contemplation.”
“Hmm. What is the point?”
“The nest on a bare tree is full of wisdom…meaning. I find them transmitting silent messages! Often, when free, I watch the well-made nests swinging in the cold air…fragile, vulnerable, exposed…to the elements…predators.”
“Interesting! You sound poetic! Do you write?” “No, no,” Maya laughed. “Poetry! Beyond simple me! Even otherwise, poets never made sense to me.” “True! I also find current poetry inaccessible,” observed Robert wryly.
A bird entered the corridor outside, flapping wet wings. It almost collided with the glass of the shop and then flew up, leaving a trail of water across the name of the coffee shop.
Robert continued to fiddle with the phone, stifling a yawn. “The day is slow.” “Yes,” Maya confirmed. “Good. We are understaffed. Two colleagues reported sick in the morning.”
“Yes, a big problem these days!” agreed Robert. “Do not worry, pal! We will manage. Chang is on the way. Hasina is ready for another shift.” “Good! You are a good supervisor!” “Thanks Maya. Lucky we are in. Anyway, the traffic will build up in the late afternoon.”
“We are ready, boss!”
Robert smiled. “So, tell me about those trees…nests…”
“Oh, yeah! As I was saying…I often think about those nests perched high up. Swaying dangerously in the strong winds. I watch them closely. When it rains, they look desolate…lonely…dripping with water. They remain stable. As if stuck on.” “Is it?” “Yes.” “Miracle?” “In a way, yes. They are there only.” “Indeed surprising!”
“Yes. So far, no blast of the wind or a storm could dislodge them from that height. The slender, simple nests!”
“Yes. That is why I continue to study them…chart their daily progress…document them on film, mornings, nights. In different lighting…and shade. Nests as evolving symbols, their seasonal progress…the way they communicate to me on ground. I record these moments and keep the digital data safe. Whole thing is, well, thrilling!”
Maya laughed and looked at the doors---two undecided men. They stand, talk and go away.
The bird circles back in the corridor.
A Chinese man walks with his dog outside in the corridor---visible from the glass. “Wonderful! I never thought you were that committed observer. You should join the Project NestWatch! They would be happy to have you as a member.” Robert stated his admiration in a neutral tone. “No need for all that. I am happy on my own…love watching these two nests from my rented room in Mississauga. The property looks over a trail. I see some other bird homes high up. But these two! Of immense value to solitary me.” “Hmm. Good hobby! Go on. Discuss your findings with this ignorant man busy tidying up his own mess. Ha!”
“The nests as symbols, signs, metaphors! Fragile units, yet strongly attached to the slender leafless branches…glued securely for chics there by a tiny bird…making a complex web of twigs, leaves and what not. A natural marvel! A real beauty!” “Sure. I never looked at the nests from that angle. In fact, I hardly noticed them in my life, till now. Real interesting!” Robert gushed. “Thanks!”
Robert nodded head. “Amazing!” “Are they not instructive? The nests?”
“Yes, they are. Wow! You have made me see them in a different light. By the way, the nests are made by the squirrels, or, so I was told. Birds also make nests on properties. It is an art honed over the centuries.”
“Right Robert! One of my friends was telling me that preparing nests involve skills learned over a long period. Squirrels, birds, beavers. List is long. He is a nature enthusiast, my friend, studying ornithology part time. One day, a bit low, I stood and watched the little yard, as is my habit. A storm was building up and soon it hit the neighbourhood with great intensity…gloom, thunder, wind, boom…all that. It was intense. Came suddenly.”
“Hmm! Climate change, they say,” said Robert. “The storms keep recurring in Canada with more frequency now. What happened then?”
“Nothing. The storm came and battered everything in its angry way for more than an hour or so. Darkness fell. Thunder cleaved the sky. Lightning fell in some place. I shuddered.” “Oh! I remember it now, some time back…” “Yes. A severe one.” “Then? Did it affect you or others?”
“No. We were safe. It shook the trees, fences, and tiles. Surprisingly, the nests remained there stuck on the bare branches during its passage. A marvel of sorts! The branches moved violently but the nests did not fall. God’s grace.” “Yes. Unbelievable! You are a keen observer, Maya!”
“Thanks. My trait, watching folks. Anyway, I deeply admire the skills of its unsung creator, the tiny bird or squirrel or whatever, a humble creature of God who could make durable homes for their kids up there in the air.” “Yes, you are right.” “It is a season of change. Trees are shedding leaves. Winter is around the corner. And these nests are there as shelters to some sure-footed creatures, out there in the cold! Storm or winter, just there, as visible symbols, on leafless trees. A place to go back to in cold and rain and darkness…is it not wonderful, Robert?”
“Agreed. A place to return to. love the sound of your presentation, Maya.”
Robert hummed an old tune.
Maya polished the counter top and the coffee machine.
Then she addressed the supervisor: “And, now, to your original query, sir. Why am I sticking to this shit job? Well, being human, I have my lows too. Certain days, I feel miserable….” “Hmm! I can understand that. We all suffer from this dark phase…some more regularly…”
“Whenever I feel low or want to quit the low-wage job, I am reminded of the high nests dancing in the wind, out there in the open. I have seen them endure in the worst situations. Nests! We all are working for them in our short lives. Aren’t we?”
Robert nodded. “Right. Absolutely. Reminds me of an incident from another life and age.”
“Tell me, please? All ears.” Maya said.
“OK. I was nine. We were living in Mombasa. I went out one afternoon to the shore, along with my kid sister…”
“Oh! Nice!” she said. “Family outing.”
The rain was letting up. A cat purred outside the doors, waiting to enter.
Robert drummed vigorously, eyes far off. He did not speak for long, biting lower lip.
The cat stood on its paws and looked inside.
“Tell me, what happened next?”
“Hmm! The usual. We made sand castles and here comes this bully and he demolishes our work of labour and love. My kid sister cries but again makes a castle, while I give up. The bully comes back…”
“…and destroys the castle.”
“Yeah! How do you know?”
She did not reply, just smiled.
“It went on for an hour.” “Oh!”
“Yeah! My little sister! She went on making the castles; he, destroying them, till the bully got exhausted and left the scene, cursing us.”
“That is the spirit! Your sister is a fighter, a born fighter!”
They both laughed.
“Yes. My baby sister, no quitter. Ha!”
“In a way, we all are. Life! It leaves no choices for some.” “Yes. Sometimes, some of us want to quit but cannot.”
“Are the nests hanging there?”
“Yes, yes. There only.”
Maya showed the pictures of the tiny homes on the bare trees.
Robert was impressed by the wide-angle high-resolution shots, their composition, lighting, clarity---everything. “I would like to see them. and learn from them.” “Sure. Most welcome! Any time.”
A young customer entered the shop, all wet and they got busy with her order…
(Toronto-based author-academic-editor, Sunil Sharma has published 23 creative and critical books, joint and solo. He edits the Setu journal)