Mr Unwin, meet Bilal.
He is the taller of the two who stand under the arch of bougainvillea, the wooden gate open behind them. I am the shorter one, the one who is squinting. That is a temporary squint, and I squinted at the time of being photographed not because of the sun, I was just trying to hide my discomfort at being looked at through a viewfinder. The picture was taken on the first Small Eid after we came to live in Bougainvillea, and I invited him for the feast because I owed him a treat. That is another story, but let me narrate it now because it may not fit anywhere else in this book.
A week after I joined the town school, of which Vappa, Uncle Yazin and Aunt Yasmin were the alumni of, I ran into Bilal on the cliff path. At school we sat on the same bench because we were of the same height, almost, and I willed him to quickly grow a head taller so I would not have to sit next to him any more: he smelled like cashew orchards in springtime and I always associated the smell of cashew flowers with death. But the chance encounter on the cliff path triggered off a chain of events that finally made us friends and partners in petty villainies.
It was one of those days when Vappa momentarily regained his old self and craved outdoors, and we were strolling down the path that frilled the north cliff, lined with shacks that sold curios and curiously-named food. Outside a cafe, I spotted Bilal, but for a long moment I could not reconcile what I saw. He was standing on his toes, leaning over the railing the café had put up around the dining area. He had one hand cupped in front of a white couple who sported identical pairs of sunglasses, the other repeatedly tapped his stomach to mime hunger. The couple, their skin tanned to the colour of sandpaper, were watching him the way people watch street stuntmen, with a mild scowl that betrayed neither indulgence nor disapproval.
My face stung at the sight of Bilal begging. I had never seen anybody outside television serials beg with such flourish. Nor had I imagined that anyone who attended school on weekdays would beg at weekends. I passed him with my eyes averted to the sea, my ears tuned to its roar. We were walking past a fish stall – catch of the day sat with sleepy eyes on a bed of crushed ice, traded by a man who knew the English name of every fish and spoke with the civility of a trained salesman because his clients were foreign tourists and hence his wares were unimaginably dear – when I heard my name being called. It took me an effort to not hear him, and I walked faster as his voice grew louder.
‘Are you deaf?’ Vappa snapped. ‘Someone is shouting your name.’
I turned around and saw Bilal, his face flushed from running, his breathing uneven.
‘Hello,’ he panted.
I wanted to say hello and goodbye in the same breath and move on, but Vappa was already holding Bilal’s hand and asking him his name and the location of his residence.
‘Behind the town mosque,’ he said, gasping for breath.
‘Behind the town mosque?’ Vappa pulled a face. ‘Behind the mosque there are railway lines.’
‘In the same premises as the mosque,’ Bilal said and, as Vappa was beginning to knit his eyebrows, he added almost inaudibly, ‘I live in the orphanage.’
Vappa forced a smile and, as if to hide his embarrassment, asked tenderly, ‘What brings you to the cliff?’
I expected Bilal to lie, but he smiled sheepishly and said nothing. The white couple Bilal had begged to walked past us, hand in hand, wind in the hair. The man puffed up his cheeks at the sight of Bilal, the lady removed her sunglasses and rolled her eyes comically at him.
‘You got lots of friends around here,’ Vappa said.
The sun had nearly set, and the lights were coming on in the shacks. Vappa reminded Bilal to start his journey back to the town as it would soon be dark. As if the mere thought of darkness frightened him, Bilal rushed off, blending into little groups of people that drifted down the cliff path. All night I wondered if smiles were all that Bilal could coax out of the white couple with his charade of hunger. But the moment I stepped through the school gates the next morning the riddle solved itself.
‘I have a dollar,’ said Bilal. He was standing by the bird cage, feeding love birds. ‘We will spend it at lunch break.’
This is an excerpt from Anees Salim’s The Small-Town Sea.