“So there’s this man” the heavy-bearded man straightened.
“If he is even half as grumpy as you, then I don’t want to hear it” his clean-shaved but mustached friend frowned.
“Relax” the bearded man grinned, “He’s nothing like me!”
“He’s rich, has three estates to his name, lives on the biggest one, and has a missing granddaughter.”
“Interesting,” the mustached man said, “Save for the missing granddaughter.”
The bearded man frowned in response, “That’s more interesting than the wealth.”
“Not for me it is!”
“What’s money really?” the bearded man took a large sip out of his chai cup, “Just big notes that determine what you can take and give from others. And trust me when I say this: it comes as easily as it goes. And it’s the same the other way around.”
“If I needed a philosophy lecture, I would have stayed home and listened to my mother” The mustached man grunted.
“Alright, alright. Now listen already.”
The mustached man proceeded to deliver a mocking gesture: his hand under his chin, and his eyes stared so hard, they would pop out any second.
“As I was saying” the bearded man continued, “The man was filthy rich and lived in the biggest estate he owned. His family lived with him, at least some of them did. He had a son, two daughters, and one of those daughters had passed. But this rich man loved one person most from his family: his granddaughter.”
The weather was becoming cooler by the passing minute. “Whose daughter was she?” the mustached man asked.
“His deceased daughter’s.”
The mustached man grinned brightly; as a constant listener of the bearded man’s stories, he had been predicting this.
The bearded man however calmly continued, “She was his only grandchild who was around actually. His son was married but didn’t have any children and his other daughter never looked back after she married a man her father didn’t approve of. So, this guy didn’t really have that many options.”
His friend sighed. The evening was beginning to fall as the sky darkened and both men’s breaths became visible with every exhale. The mustached man called out to the Dhaba owner for another round of chai. Before it was just the two of them, but now, more travelers had stopped their cars and trucks by the vendors to warm themselves with shots of tea. The bearded man smiled at a little child who was hopping alongside his father, who carried two cups of tea from the Dhaba back to the family car they arrived in.
“The granddaughter is about that child’s age when she is kidnapped” he sighed.
The mustached man was listening but he didn’t answer. He was well aware of his companion’s preference for storytelling over political discussions but never knew how to respond when the latter’s stories took grim turns.
“The grandfather, the rich man, spends years trying to hunt down the kidnappers. There are phone calls the first couple of days: the usual ransom demands, but suddenly there is silence. The police, the family, no one ever finds anything. Not even a body.”
“You’re lucky that the child's family can’t hear you.”
“It’s just a story,” the bearded man smiled. His mustached friend rolled his eyes.
The bearded storyteller halted. The sound of the Maghreb prayer resounded in the air, and the Dhaba owner toned down the volume of his radio which had been playing a 60s song the whole time. Only the hollering of trucks passing them on the highway, and the playful cries of children now surrounded them; everyone else listened calmly to the Azaan.
“Well, what did the rich fellow do then?” the mustached man said a while later. The sounds of conversation were back in the air, and the radio was wrung up louder than before.
The bearded man smirked, “Got your attention didn’t I?”
When the mustached man slapped him on the back, he continued with an innocent laugh, “Well, he never stopped looking for her. His son gave up eventually but cried one night to his wife. He should have tried harder to look or have kept a better eye on the girl. She was his niece after all.”
“You didn’t mention how the girl disappeared.”
“Just outside her family home. She was playing in the plains outside.”
“No siblings, or cousins. Her grandfather was her best friend, but he was out of town that day.”
“Sounds like the family may be a little too possessive of her. The only child you know.”
“Let’s continue after the prayer” the bearded man straightened his back as he got up, clicks from his bones sounding in the air. The mustached man sighed and realized the best course of action would be to let his friend carry on the story despite the plethora of doubts he had about the story. But then again, his friend was a storyteller; authenticity was not one of his strengths.
“Now, just like this, the years pass. The grandfather never stops looking but the son and his wife still feel guilty and try to carry on. Because of this mania of the grandfather, the control of the estates and business passes over to his son.”
“Aah,” the mustached man exclaimed, “Now, it's beginning to sound fishy!”
The bearded man growled, “As I said, years pass. Then one day, a detective, whom the grandfather kept on his payroll for years, finds a girl in an orphanage; one who startlingly resembles his granddaughter.”
The mustached man sighed, and his friend stroked the grey hairs of his beard with a grin.
“The grandfather demands to see the girl immediately, and she is brought to him. The son and his wife are skeptical, but when the family sees the girl, they are stunned.”
The mustached man raised his eyes.
“She is just like her! Her dark eyes, her black hair, the features of her face.”
“She could still be an imposter.”
“People change when they grow up but not so much that they can’t recognize each other. And the girl was eight when she was abducted.”
“Does the girl by any chance have a name?” the mustached man groaned. He was feeling the first pangs of exhaustion but his curiosity had not yet died down.
“Is it the granddaughter’s name or the imposter’s?”
“The granddaughter’s” the bearded storyteller groaned; usually questions were a green flag that his friend was actually listening to the story, but now his doubts were becoming irritating. The mustached man chuckled.
“The grandfather immediately decided she was the one. He spoke with the girl, chatted with her, and to add, Serena remembered everything about her childhood. She had no cousins or friends, and she loved playing football with her grandfather in the estate.”
“You didn’t mention that before.”
“I’m mentioning it now” the bearded man paused at the arrival of two new fresh teas. The teenaged vendor placed it next to them and turned back. “But the son was not entirely satisfied.”
“Of course he wasn't,” the mustached man grinned.
“Even though this girl had all the answers. Everything she said, every memory she retold, even of the time she was kidnapped, everything made sense. But the son still had his doubts.”
“What did she say about when she was kidnapped?”
“She said that some men tied her up, covering her eyes and ears, but she could hear the sound of them yelling. They threw her into a moving vehicle and kept her there. For days, according to her account. Then, the Lord knows when, she felt some hands grabbing her and throwing her onto the ground. She was exhausted, fainting, and hungry. The next thing she knows is that she is being taken care of by a female warden in an orphanage. And she lived there before the detective finally found her as an adult.”
The bearded man ended the account with a deep sigh. He placed a hand over his chest, as though something was there, but the mustached man did not respond. His eyes remained glued on the face of his friend, with his lips touching the brim of his ceramic teacup.
“Seems a little believable.”
The bearded man smiled, “The son feels the same way. But he is still doubtful, just like you.”
The mustached man raised his cup in agreement.
“So the son hires a detective. To find out whether or not she is the real Serena.”
“This detective visits the house. The grandfather figures out why he’s here and invites him to his study for a private session. The grandfather assures the detective that the Serena living with them is the real Serena.”
“And the detective? Does he share the doubts?”
“The investigation has only just begun. The grandfather is so confident that he invites the detective to stay with the family for a couple of days. He observes everything: their lifestyle, their relationships, and when the grandfather throws a grand party in honor of Serena’s return, he attends that too.”
The bearded man paused. Not for dramatic effect, but because a louder-than-usual truck was passing by at the pace of a turtle.
“He sees Serena as well. Observes her, actually. He sees her transition back to the role of the family’s heiress from the abandoned orphan she grew up as. After this grand party, he meets her in private in the garden. To get a detailed account of how she was kidnapped and her life at the orphanage growing up.”
“She tells him the same thing she told the family. No discrepancies or anything. And as an experienced man, he can tell that she hasn’t rehearsed this account.”
The mustached man shook his head, still doubtful. The bearded man had his hands raised, and a triumphant glow was visible on his face. His story was taking its first turn, and it was making his heart race.
“But Serena has changed,” the bearded man grinned.
“Of course she has!” the mustached man announced. But even he couldn’t help but smile at the story’s headway, “She is not the real girl!”
The bearded man sighed, “Her grandfather thinks she is. And so does her aunt.”
The mustached man raised his eyebrows, “Why?”
“I guess no person forgets the child they raised. Serena may not have been their blood but after her mother died, her uncle and aunt really did take good care of her.”
“And the detective believes all this? He believes Serena?”
“Not entirely. He still carries on his investigation. He travels to the orphanage where Serena lived for years. He scavenges the neighboring areas for clues but finds only hollow ones.”
“One interesting clue he finds is that during her early years in the orphanage, Serena became friends with another orphaned girl her own age. This girl was actually the daughter of one of the wardens there, and she stayed in the orphanage after her mother passed away. Her father was never in the picture.”
“Is this girl important to the story, or are you just dragging me along?”
The bearded man narrowed his eyes in subtle fury.
“If I’m mentioning her, that means she has a lot to do,” the bearded man said, tilting his head up in a showcase of pride, “We storytellers don’t like to dwell on mindless details.”
The mustached man didn’t answer but fumed in the visible irony of his companion’s proclamation.
“But the detective doesn’t confront Serena just yet. He notices that for all her charm and confidence, she doesn’t fit in well into the high-class crowd her family is used to being a part of.”
“Of course she doesn’t!”
“But she gets along with her grandfather and aunt just fine.”
“They must be blinded with age.”
“Or maybe, all those years of living in the slums may have changed Serena for the better. I’ll tell you, for an only child, she grows to be full of strutting confidence. But she’s still just as charming as her eight-year-old self.”
“What about Serena’s friend from the orphanage?”
“She passed away when she was seventeen. Due to multiple infections.”
The mustached man sighed, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. In fact, once the detective even observes Serena visiting her grave.”
“Does her grandfather know?”
“Yes. She eventually tells him, and once they even go to the grave together.”
“Does the detective ever find anything?!”
“He finds that one warden at the orphanage, one who has been around since Serena was a child, had kept accounts of every child she took care of. She had recorded in her journal that one of the girls she took care of loved playing football and introduced it to some of the children at the orphanage. The same girl often spoke of her family, particularly her grandfather.”
“Was this girl Serena or her friend?”
The bearded man smiled knowingly, “It was Serena.”
“I still don’t believe it.”
“Why do you think it was her friend?”
“Just a hunch.”
“The grandfather may be old but is not old enough to not recognize an imposter in his granddaughter’s place” the bearded man continued to smile, but his chai had gone ice-cold, and his hand was still patting his chest, trying to calm whatever was beating furiously inside.
“What about the kidnappers? Or the detective?”
“What if I tell you tomorrow?”
The mustached man narrowed his eyes, “You don’t know do you?”
“Of course I do!” the bearded man jerked back, “the night’s getting darker anyways. Besides, I never said I was going to tell you the entire story tonight. It’s like Scheherazade not ending her stories in a single night.”
“Great! Now I have to listen to you for a thousand more nights!” the mustached man hollered, feeling cheated but the bearded man laughed hard. In the dozen years they had known each other, this was the lousiest story the mustached man felt he had ever heard from his friend. What riled him up, even more, was that his bearded friend was sitting and smiling triumphantly, as though he had just disclosed his magnum opus.
“Fine! I’m heading home” the mustached man got up, demanding that his bearded friend pay for the chai they had guzzled while listening to a pathetic story, “And for your information, I still think there’s something fishy in the whole case!”
The bearded man raised his teacup in sarcastic agreement. He knew that his mustached friend did not yet think of the story as entirely pathetic, and the two waved each other goodbye in the frostbite of the night.
The bearded man leaned back on the charpoy, still smiling and sighing, but his heart continued to ache on the inside. Again, he pressed his palm on his chest but human hearts had a notorious reputation for not calming down when they were required to.
A black car pulled up, flashing its lights at the tea vendor’s stall. The bearded man turned to it and smiled, recognizing the number plate, and the young lady who stepped out from the back. A suited driver got out as well, and bent his head towards the bearded man with a smile but didn’t step further. The lady pulled her large beige overcoat closer to her torso as she walked towards the bearded man with gleaming eyes.
Seated next to him, sighed, “How long are you planning to stay out?”
“Till I finish this” the bearded man raised his fourth teacup of the night, “And until you tell me the story again.”
The lady groaned but her youthful face glowed at him, “You need to sleep early. We’re going to the cemetery again tomorrow morning, remember?”
“I’ll go if you tell me the story again. Tell me about Serena again” he was smiling, and she wanted to smile with him. But a sigh rested on her tongue.
“You haven’t slept well lately. Uncle’s getting riled up about you.”
“He’ll live. Just tell me the story again. You don’t even know how much time I have left.”
“You’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”
“Don’t challenge the Creator, my dear.”
“I’m not. I’m begging him.”
She pushed him forward, asking him to get up so she can get him to the warmth of their home. Despite his age, he was a hefty and able man, but stubborn like a child. To top it off, he liked being playful with her. She liked catering to him, and tending to him, but this story was a stiff reminder to her. Of a past, that could not be brushed aside like dust underneath the carpet.
The bearded man stroked her hand, and clasped it. “It’s alright. You’re still Serena to me. It doesn’t matter what anyone says.”
She smiled back at him. “What did your friend say?”
“He thinks you’re the friend” the bearded man chuckled.
“He sounds like a clever man!”
The bearded man chuckled, pointing at her face, “See? There. Keep smiling just like that.”
She laughed, brushing a strand of her black hair back under her headscarf, “Why? Does it make me look more like Serena then?”
“No,” the bearded man sighed, “You look like yourself then.”
“Come on then. Let’s go home…” her trail of words flickered away. The bearded man knew why. Finally, he got up and the driver stepped forward to take his master’s free hand, leading him to the car.
“I’m your grandfather too you know” he murmured to her. She looked at him once and turned away again.
“Are you sure?” she said
“Yes” he smiled, “You were her friend. You took care of her when she was sick. You came all this way just to tell me about her and showed me where she is buried.”
The lady gulped; she wasn’t smiling anymore.
“I’m fine my dear. I truly am fine” he said with a hand still glued to his chest. His other free hand rose to pat her head.