“What is she looking at?”
Lucy’s friends glanced at her and then at the figure on the other side of the street, who stood watching them, while they sat around the chic table outside a prestigious city wine bar.
“She’s been staring at us, or rather at me, for a long time,” remarked Lucy, flicking back her gorgeous, auburn hair, taking a long drag of her sleek cigarette nonchalantly like Greta Garbo.
“I don’t think she’s looking at you my dear,” remarked Lucy’s confidante, Roxanne, “she’s probably senile.”
“A bit creepy though,” chimed in their friend Saba. “That’s not right the way she’s just looking at us.”
“Don’t stare back!” insisted Lucy. “She might come up to us!”
Roxanne interrupted: “Just ignore her. Pretend she’s not even there.”
Lucy shuddered slightly; all she could see was a dark dress, a flowing scarf, thick dark hair and intense eyes across the street. But she took heed of her friend’s advice and turned back to their conversation.
Roxanne proffered the bottle and then poured the pristine red wine into each of her friends’ glasses. Lucy raised a toast.
“Here’s to wine and…Men!” She grinned and her friends smiled back knowingly.
The three women, elegant, stunning, in their prime, successful in their jobs, well-paid and well-bred, supped on the wine and sighed sweetly as the taste infused them.
“So,” began Lucy, “who are we meeting here tomorrow?”
Roxanne drew closer. “These three guys are cuter than cute! I met them last week at the conference…”
The sun shone, warm and hearty like mulled wine. The central London traffic of taxis, businessmen and politicians ebbed and flowed. The three women stared into each other’s vibrant eyes, exulting in the taste of wine, enjoying the thrill of the moment, of being stunning young women who had the world at their feet and all men at their disposal. Their eyes sparkled like stars and all those around them could not help but admire these women from a distance.
“It’s her again,” whispered Lucy.
It was the heart of the next evening. The three sirens were sitting in the same spot with three charming men, groomed, toned and dashing like film stars. The three companions sat side by side facing their dates, who were chatting away amongst themselves.
“What are you talking about?” enquired Saba.
“It’s that woman again.”
Roxanne frowned slightly and peered across the street. The woman from the previous day stood there, looking at them.
“I told you; just ignore her. The more attention you give her, the more she will do it.”
“But it’s really annoying,” complained Lucy.
The guys noticed the hushed tones and also looked across the street.
“What’s wrong ladies?” began one of them.
“Oh, it’s nothing… So tell us about your latest project.” Roxanne nudged Lucy who was still looking across the road, which impelled her to notice her wine glass, ripe for the taking and the three princes sitting opposite her.
“Yes, sorry, it’s nothing,” Lucy said, gazing playfully at the three men. “Do tell us about your latest exploits.”
“Why do you keep watching me?”
It was the midday now, the following day. Lucy was alone, having a glass of wine with lunch in the glorious sunshine before returning to the office. That irritating woman was once again across the street, seemingly watching her and Lucy, against her better judgement, left her lunch and wine glass and marched across the street.
She stood there glaring at this singular woman, who Lucy surmised was probably called Babushka, hailed from Romania and was going to ask her for money for her growing brood.
“Well,” demanded Lucy, “what’s your problem? Do you even speak English?” The woman seemed to be ignoring her and still looked across the road, but turned and Lucy was taken aback.
There they were: those clear, dark eyes, thick, healthy locks underneath a loosely-draped headscarf. She was strange and beautiful like a flower in a rainforest, like a newly discovered sea creature, but what business did this woman have with her?
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” replied the woman. Her accent had a trace of eastern places, but she spoke perfect estuary English. Her voice was soft like silk and high like a flute. There was a hint of melancholy about her; something tragic. Perhaps she was a refugee, thought Lucy.
“But as I have walked by here, I have seen you, and I couldn’t help noticing something.”
Half-interested in the impending response, Lucy asked: “and what was that?”
The woman drew closer and whispered:
“I think you have a thing for wine and men.”
Suddenly, Lucy erupted in laughter, which also infected the stranger, and for a moment, the two giggled away like a pair of long-lost friends. Then Lucy returned to her senses, wiping her eyes.
“What on earth are you talking about? Do I know you?” After the initial hilarity of this stranger’s outlandish comment, now Lucy was becoming deeply irritated because it seemed that this woman had not only been eavesdropping on her conversations, but was also making some sort of moral judgement.
“I was just making an observation, that’s all.” remarked the woman, smiling.
A scowl was beginning to form on Lucy’s face.
“Well, thank you, but please keep your observations to yourself. Please stop staring at us across the road. It’s rude and I will call the police and have you done for harassment if you do it again.”
The strange woman seemed not to register Lucy’s offence and threat and carried on unperturbed.
“Well, I also love wine, a very special sort of wine. And I know someone… Just the mention of his name makes me swoon and every time I see him, it’s like the whole universe and all it contains vanishes and there is only his beauty and his love.”
Lucy was dumbstruck momentarily.
“Pardon me?” she asked in bemusement.
“I said, I know him. He is more beautiful than any man your eyes have ever looked upon and the wine he gives you tastes so sweet, it will make your heart melt. I can take you to him. See him for yourself, take the cup and taste his wine. Don’t you love wine and men?”
The woman gazed at Lucy firmly, meaningfully. Lucy, still in a stupor, thought for a moment and then could not help herself. Fits of laughter shivered through her as she registered what the woman had said and what she had expected her to say. It felt like she had just entered the twilight zone! What Lucy had expected was this woman to lead her onto a story about a daughter who was suffering from a life-threatening illness and she needed money for an operation. What she got instead was something like a genie’s promise in Arabian Nights!
“So?” asked the woman, brightly. “Would you like to join me for some of this fine wine?”
Sensible thought returned to Lucy like the kick you get from a stiff coffee on a morning after a night out.
“No, I think I’ll leave it this time.” Either she is a rather unhinged individual or she could take me around the corner where a van full of traffickers lay in wait, thought Lucy.
The woman’s transparent eyes gazed into Lucy’s. She smiled widely.
“You have nothing to fear. The place where you can taste this wine and see my friend is just a few minutes walk from here and you know this is a very busy road with plenty of people. There is even CCTV all over this street. I am no criminal. I just believe we share common interests and I thought I would share something with you because you might appreciate it. But if you are unconvinced, never mind. I will not bother you again.”
There was something convincing, reasonable and even harmless in her words and ways. It could not do any harm to follow this woman up the road. And if it meant she would finally leave her and her friends alone, perhaps it was a good move, thought Lucy.
“Okay then, lead the way!”
So they started walking up the bustling street, full of various people disappearing and reappearing out of the plethora of cafes and wine bars that populated this fashionable area of the city. The woman walked ahead of Lucy and intermittently peered back, smiling graciously.
She wore a fine, olive-coloured, long dress like a tunic, which flowed around her body beautifully. The scarf hung gracefully around her head, with lustrous wavy locks hanging out, which she would flick back behind the scarf. Her face was wide and full like the sky and her eyes were so clear it seemed as if they had been purified like the unblemished water of mountain streams.
After a few minutes, they were on the opposite end of the road, which was the high street for a variety of ethnicities. Restaurant, kebab shops and grocers filled this section of the street. Now the woman came to a halt outside a building and pointed.
“This is the place.”
Lucy read the sign above the door. Embassy mosque. There were two doors, one which said “Brothers’ entrance” and the other which said “Sisters’ entrance”.
“I don’t understand.” Lucy began.
“This is the place. Where you can see him; where he gives you his wine.”
“In a mosque?” asked Lucy incredulously.
The woman beamed at her in response.
Sighing deeply, Lucy fumed: “well, you have truly wasted my time. No offence, but I think we’ll end the conversation here. I will leave you to your wine and your man. And you can leave me and my friends alone from now on.”
The woman gazed back at Lucy, sympathetically.
“Okay, it is your choice, but let me leave you with this…” She began to recite verses that Lucy had never heard before, heart-felt, deep as the ocean, as passionate as Dionysian lovers. Then she disappeared into the sisters’ door of the Embassy mosque. Lucy walked back to the wine bar, sat at her table quietly and sipped on her wine then returned to work.
The next day, Lucy met Roxanne and Saba for lunch at the wine bar. They were nattering away about work and the fact that Roxanne was seeing one of the guys they met the other night, when suddenly there was shrieking and commotion across the street.
“Oh dear Lucy, looks like your friend is in trouble!” laughed Roxanne. The three watched as a ragged old woman across the street was fighting off two female police officers who were trying to lead her away.
Lucy was confused: “what do you mean by ‘your friend’?”
“You know, your friend. That woman who’s been watching us every time we sit here.”
Lucy looked again at the screaming old woman, who was now grappling the officers: “that’s not her.”
“Yes it is. That’s the one we saw before, when the guys were with us and that other time as well.”
“Roxanne, that is definitely not her,” stated Lucy.
“Lucy dear. I am quite sure that is the strange old woman that you complained about before. I saw her too,” confirmed Saba.
Lucy looked back at the bedraggled drunken woman with her haggard looks who was now being dragged along by the police into the police car. That was not the woman she had spoken to and walked with. But Lucy did not want to betray her thoughts to her friends.
“Oh, perhaps it was her then. I could have sworn she looked different before though.”
“These poor alcoholics are like Jekyll and Hyde. I guess she had it coming. Somebody must have complained to the police.”
Lucy felt deeply disquieted as she reflected on what had just occurred. Roxanne and Saba had seen an alcoholic old woman. She had seen this mysterious eastern woman who had led her to the mosque down the road. Had she hallucinated it all? Was she ill? Or perhaps the woman she had spoken to was somebody else? But she couldn’t have been someone else because she had referred to what had transpired before. What on earth was going on?
So later, after work, Lucy approached the Embassy mosque rather gingerly. The identity of this stranger had been bugging her all day. She had to find out who this woman was to confirm her own sanity. She opened the door of the sisters’ entrance and found herself in a hallway, which at the end had a door that was signed: prayer hall. Doors to the side had signs also that said: Ablutions and Toilets.
There was a Muslim woman standing in the corridor, with a headscarf and long dress, reading a notice board. Lucy shuddered. What on earth was she going to say? How could she bring up the subject? Do you know any strange women talking about wine and men in this mosque? That would certainly be taken the wrong way. Nevertheless, she walked up to the noticeboard and stood alongside the woman who was reading the notice on children’s classes. Lucy scanned her side of the noticeboard.
It was here that her heart skipped a beat and butterflies wreaked havoc below.
There, on the noticeboard, was a photo of the woman she had spoken to. The clear eyes, the rich hair, the melancholic smile. Underneath was written:
From Allah did we come and to Him we will return.
Quran reading for Layla Habeeb this Saturday. All sisters are invited.
Lucy stared closely at the photograph. It was unmistakably the same woman who had spoken of wine and men. Layla Habeeb was her name. And the women were reading Quran for her. What did this mean?
“Excuse me but can you tell me who that is?” asked Lucy politely to the woman beside her.
“Oh, that’s Layla. She was one of our sisters…”
“Was?” interrupted Lucy, her heart beginning to palpitate.
“Yes, she passed away last week. She was like a spiritual woman. People used to come to her for prayers and help. She was beautiful.”
“Oh, I see, thank you.”
“Why do you ask? Did you know her?”
“Er, no, not really. I only spoke to her once…” Bewilderment was beginning to flood Lucy’s mind. This Layla had died last week, but she had spoken to her and walked with her yesterday.
“Where did you meet her?”
“Oh, I met her once on the street outside. It’s sad she passed away.”
“Yes, very sad,” replied the woman.
“Where was she buried?” asked Lucy, her voice quivering from her inner turmoil.
“She was buried in the cemetery up the road. You know, the local one. You can pay your respects there if you want to. She’s in the Muslim section at the back.”
“Okay, thank you, I may go there soon.”
“Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
“I’m Aisha. And by the way, if you want somewhere to sit and reflect, you are welcome to come here.”
“That’s very kind of you to offer, thank you,” replied Lucy and she was just about to go when the question that had been throbbing in her head tumbled out.
“When I spoke to her, she talked of wine and men. Was she okay? I didn’t think Muslims were into that sort of thing.”
The woman laughed: “Oh no! She didn’t mean that sort of wine or those sort of men…Yes, she did speak like that. As I said, she was spiritual and sometimes she did utter some mystifying things. Go to her grave and see it. You’ll like it.”
Lucy veered out of the mosque and found herself involuntarily striding up the street towards the local cemetery. Her mind and soul were wrestling furiously. Had she really spoken to Layla? Was she going crazy? How could she talk to someone who died the week before? What was happening to her?
It was only when she reached the graveyard and stood before Layla Habeeb’s grave that her spirit floored her rationality and a mixture of horror, confusion and strange ecstasy shivered through her body. For on Layla’s tombstone were inscribed the very same verses that Layla had recited to her the day before. Lucy read them as the tears poured down her face:
When my lonely heart befriended the wine-giver
Wine fired my heart and my veins filled up
But when His image all my eyes possessed
A voice descended
“Well done, O sovereign Wine and Peerless Cup!”
The final verses were taken from: “The Wine of Love” by Jalalul Din Rumi, from Rumi Poet and Mystic, translated by Reynold A Nicholson.