Great! Rita’s mobile went dead. Chad shouldn’t really be driving and talking. Was he going through another of those long tunnels in Singapore? The Kallang–Paya Lebar Expressway.

About six kilometres or so, Rita remembered. It was very frustrating to be cut off in the middle of an important conversation like this. The light breeze blew her long dark hair in her eyes.

Although, the whole point of coming here was to relax, break away from routine, and rest whatever grey cells she had remaining. But the electronic leash could never be completely switched off. I must get my own personal mobile, Rita told herself for the nth time. That way, she could actually leave her work mobile behind. But will you, really? a little voice taunted her. Don’t you want to stay one step ahead of your team?

An unintelligible yell made her head whip around. Why couldn’t people just enjoy the peace of this balmy evening, without raucous teens breaking up the waves of their thoughts every so often? Framed against the fading sky, it was difficult to make out anything else, except for their outlines. They couldn’t be local guys, as they’d know they had to be quiet.

No, these were probably some spoilt brats, sent out here on some pricey camp holiday to get them out of their parents’ hair. And it was just Rita’s luck they had to have their fishing class on this pier, where she’d her wayward steps had led her, to try and relax, to stop burning out, according to her new shrink.

Strangely enough, the shifting orange paintings across the sky, the lap, lap of the waves were sort of helping her thoughts to calm down. Staring at the sinking sun was almost hypnotic. Rita closed her brown eyes, and stopped taking photos. A moment like this couldn’t be captured. Just felt. Lived. Why had she never gone on a quiet, no activities holiday before?

Ta, da, ta, da. Ta, da, ta, da. Rita nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked around. No, it was hers. She still hadn’t gotten used to the new ring-tone. She almost didn’t want to take the call, but Chad would know she was miffing him, if she didn’t. Besides, she had to know what was going on. It was her project, after all. What if Marcus found this the perfect opportunity to back-stab her? She had to know about the future of this project.

‘As I was saying,’ Chad’s nasal tones hadn’t been affected in the slightest after six years in Asia. ‘The Grobers have given us a second chance. Let me tell you, I had to sweat about four buckets over four lunches, one family trip to Sentosa,  and two private parties, before they would even consider giving time of day to our new blueprints’.

‘When’s the deadline?’ Rita jumped in before Chad could go into excruciating details of how he’d manage to win them this second opportunity. He should be given a prize for exaggeration every month.

‘That’s where you got lucky. Due to the Hannover Convention next week, they won’t be back till about two weeks later, as they’re going on a kind of mini-European tour the following week. So we’re shooting for about three weeks, minus a day.’

‘You mean we’ve got twenty days?’

‘Yup, and Richard wants you in on our meeting on Monday first thing. 9 o’clock sharp.’

‘OK. I’ll check with my hotel about video-conference facilities. If not, we always have MeetUp. I just have to install the new version on my PC.’

‘What? No, no, no, baby girl! Don’t be delusional. You can’t do this over the phone. You’ve got to be here. In person. At 9am sharp. On Monday.’

‘But! But, what about my holiday? I’ve still got about ten days to go.’

‘Well, you decide, baby doll. We can always put Marcus on the job, if you don’t want to lead this one.’

‘Of course, I want to lead it! How can you even think of putting Marcus back, when he messed it up in the first place? We wouldn’t need second chances, if it weren’t for full of himself Marcus!’ Rita was so indignant, she jumped up, and began pacing up and down the pier.

‘Guess you’ve got a point there. We’ll have to go with Andy then.’

The phone had the stupid habit of getting cut off at the wrong times. Rita almost threw it in the sea with frustration.

//

 

‘Andy? He’s just a kind out of school! How could you even consider him for such an important project?’ Rita’s voice was rising again.

‘OK. Baby doll, what’s your solution then?’

‘I’ll come back to the frigging office on Monday, if that’s what you’re getting at!’ An old couple gave her an odd glance, as they continued with unhurried steps to the end of the pier. Rita realised she’d been almost shouting, and tries to calm down. Wait a minute, who was that? No, it wasn’t someone she knew. But Rita could have sworn she’d seen him before.

‘Time and tide wait for no dolls. By the way, how’s your holiday going so far? Stopped thinking about work yet? About me?’ Rita wished she could punch Chad’s smug face then and there.

‘And stop calling me baby, or doll, or anything like that!’ Rita had walked too close to the edge. She took a step backward, as there were no railings on either side of this natural stone pier.

‘OK hot chick. Will do so from now on.’

‘That’s even worse! Never mind. You’re incurable!’

‘I always win. And you know it, sweetheart!’

‘Drop the sweethearts. It’s all so passé!’ As one of the wizened fishermen gave her a warning stare, Rita realized she’d been near shouting again.

‘That’s the kind of guy I am. Old-fashioned. And remember. It’s you who called me in the first place! At the week-end too, for a cozy chat and all. Remember?’

‘I just wanted an update on the Grober project. Not a short course on how to offend your female colleagues in the shortest time possible.’ Rita turned back, and started walking away from the end of the pier.

‘You get what you ask for.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean? Never mind. Just tell Richard I’ll be there for the Monday meeting.’ Rita needed some coffee urgently, and set off back towards the main road. She didn’t care too much for Spanish coffee, but anything would do right now.

‘That’s the spirit! So now you have just two more days to spot the celebs.’

‘What?

‘That’s why you went to Marbella for, didn’t you? To spot celebs? Hook a rich hubby?’

‘Are you drunk, Chad? I mean more than your Friday evening usual? Don’t bother to answer. You know I’ve been dreaming of visiting the Alhambra for ages. The sea is just a bonus.’

Chad just snorted.

‘Just note down the conditions of my return. I get five extra days of holiday this year, for cutting this one short!’

‘That’s no problem angel, as long as you take it with me!’

‘Oh! Grow up Chad! That line is so last century! By the way, before you get completely sloshed, can you forward me the new blueprints?’

‘The new what?’

‘The new plans for the new Grober proposals! Do I have to spell everything out for you?’

‘What new ones are you talking about?’

‘The ones that Andy was supposed to start preparing, and that Marcus was supervising in my absence.’

‘Nobody filled me in on this one!’

‘You mean to say no one’s even started on them yet? Typical! It’s just as well I’ll be back on Monday!’

‘I’ll second that, honey bun!’

‘Wait a minute! What are we going to show Richard come Monday? If you guys don’t even have new prints for him?’

‘Hold on now, Ms Overachiever. We have to go into our new concepts first, based on my meeting notes, and then see what the boss says, before we plunge into coming up with ideas for the new plans.’

‘That’s not how Richard works, and you know it. If don’t have anything concrete to show him, we could all get fired for wasting his precious time, just like those two chatty girls in Marketing last month.’

‘So, you’re the genius. You got a solution?’ Chad’s voice got silkier, if possible.

‘Damn, damn, damn! I’ll have to spend my two paltry days here, coming up with new plans! Is that why I came all the way to Marbella to do? Stare at my screen, and juggle with planning jig-saws of weight per square metre?’

‘You know you love doing it! That’s what you live for!’

‘Damn you, damn Marcus, and damn Andy for landing this on my back!’

‘Hey! Wait a minute! No need to curse us all! I may have an idea or two that I can pull out of my sleeve yet!’

No sound. Damn! Chad must have got into a lift. His signal must have gone out again.

//

 

Rita tried to relax, but she was too wound up right now, to do anything but to pace up and down, trying to call Chad for the nth time.

‘You and ideas! What are you talking about?’

‘Now. Don’t get mad at me, but remember those very first drafts you came up with?’

‘You mean the ones you threw out of the window, before I got the chance to explain their concept?’

‘Yes, sweetheart! Those very ones! Do you still have them around? Good! I know that because, you’re the sort who never throws anything away.’

‘Only because you never know when you can recycle them.’ Rita’s tone was cautious.

‘Good! Anyway, the point is, Richard never saw them. Remember?’

‘Wait a minute! What are you saying?’

‘Well, if you came in with them, like they were new, Richard wouldn’t know a thing about them!’

‘But you hated them at first sight!’

‘Doesn’t matter now, baby girl! Sorry, no baby girls. You don’t like that. Rose bud. What about rose bud? Just let Richard think that we came up with these new plans now for our second proposal. What’s the harm with that?’

‘But won’t he hate them too, and give the whole project to the Hong Kong team?’

‘Look, what do I know? I’m just a fast talking, smooth operator, who can charm just about anyone into doing anything. What do I know about engineering, architectural nuances, and cool  aesthetics?’

‘So why did you stamp on them in the first place?’

‘Oh, you’re so dumb, for being such a bright kid! I was just trying to intimidate you into a dinner date, remember?’

‘Oh! So that’s what that was all about, then, was it?’ Rita was stamping her feet in frustration.

‘You can be pretty dumb when it comes to matters of the heart! We’ll laugh about it all, one day. Like on our next dinner date, say?’

‘Like in the next millennia! And guess what, Chad I forgot to mention this one teensy weensy little fact. I’ve been recording all our conversations! So I got your confession this time, pal!’

Had he hung up?

‘Hello, hello! Are you there! Oh, so you hung up on me now, have you?’ Rita hit re-dial. Chad didn’t pick up.

A shout from the other end made her turn and look back. In the half gloom of the twilight, Rita could just about make out that one of the kids was holding up an unmistakably big fish, jumping up and down with sheer delight. Rita couldn’t help smiling.

//

 

As Rita settled down in the half empty café, she sent Chad an SMS:

‘Was just kidding. Don’t take everything I say when on holiday seriously. But now you owe me ten extra days off this year, for making me sweat up those new plans for two more weeks. See you on Monday. PS Ask Andy to e-mail me your Grober meeting ‘notes’ and my first drafts. Don’t have them on my PC. I’d better go over them before the Monday meeting.

Second SMS:

And you’d better approve my upgrade to Business Class, if I’m going to fly back all of Sunday night, so I can be fresh and bright-eyed for dealing with Richard.

The reality of the situation began to hit her. She wouldn’t have time to go to all the places she’d planned on visiting. The Alhambra would be her first priority tomorrow, with the Alcabaza fort a close second. The Picasso museum would have to be fitted in on Sunday afternoon, if possible. What would she say to her shrink? Rita shrank back in her chair. Here she was breaking her promise to treat herself better at the first opportunity. Succumbing to pressure again. Just like Chad couldn’t resist hitting on girls, she couldn’t resist work, pressure, deadlines. But it was her career, after all. It was easy for the shrink to say anything, as he wouldn’t go out and earn her salary for her. She needed to do that for herself.
The first sip of that strong coffee

No. It couldn’t be! But it did look like him. Just like an ordinary guy with an even more ordinary wife. And they’d even started to squabble. Should she just accost him like that? No, that would be so rude!

But if she wanted to open her own cabinet one day, then she would have to be enterprising. Was this a test from the universe? Rita didn’t believe in horoscopes, or whatever. But maybe her lucky star was shining that evening. Shouldn’t she just go over and introduce herself? But her French was so rusty. That was just an excuse. He probably understood English as well. After all, he’d had plenty of American celebs on his show over the years.

Oh no! Were they getting up and leaving already? Without paying?

No. It was just the wife going to the loo, thank the universe. This was her chance. But she just wasn’t used to pushing herself in people’s faces. Besides, if she slunk up to him when the wife was away, and handed him her card, what would he think?

He caught her eye, and half smiled, before diving back into his mobile. She was glued to her seat like a bird fixated by the sight of a particularly rare worm.

On the other hand, his wife would tear up her card, if she gave it to him in front of her. That was one of her problems, besides guys like Chad hitting on her at every opportunity. The wives almost always thought she was after their sorry husbands. When would they get it into their heads, that if she could have any guy she wanted, why would she go after their paunchy, middle-aged husbands?

She didn’t want to be treated like a wannabe starlet or model. Plenty of guys had tried to hit on her, by pretending to  lure her in the modelling business when she was younger. Anyway, too late now. The wife was back. Maybe they weren’t going to build or renovate their home, anyway, so her card would get thrown away in any case. But he must know an awful lot of well-to-do people. Go on, get up. But it just wasn’t in her nature to go barging in on people. Maybe the next time. But there would be no next time. Rita knew it. These kind of stars aligned rarely in a lifetime.

As the waiter passed by with their bill, Rita found herself getting up. She snatched away the bill from the hand of the surprised waiter.

‘I’ll get this,’ she told the bemused waiter, and the couple. ‘M. D’Arbry, I’m a big fan of your show. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten most of my French, but I used to watch you show regularly when I was a student in Geneva.’

‘And I have lost most of my English, along with my hair, mademoiselle!’ D’Arbry was unfazed, as he patted his bald pate. Perhaps he was used to being accosted by crazy people.

‘Your interview of Kozalinski, was just fabulous!’

‘Who?’ D’Arbry was puzzled for a moment.

‘The winner of the Swiss Architect of the Year Award!’

‘Ah yes, Paul Kozalinski. He’s brilliant, isn’t he? Mind you, I didn’t understand half of what he said.’ D’Arbry gave her a conspiratorial wink.

‘I just love his sweeping, wave-like concepts, interspersed with concentric spirals. Have you seen his egg-like curvatures? You know, they’re the main motifs of the Blue Byte Building in Kuala Lumpur?’

D’Arbry shook his head somewhat dazedly. Most probably he’d never been to KL, or even to Asia. Apparently, D’Arbry couldn’t afford to follow all his guests. In any case, no one except multi-million dollar corporations could afford to hire Kozalinski now. Not TV show hosts, such as D’Arbry.

‘Here’s my card, if you’re ever in need of a green architect.’ Rita thrust the card in his surprised hand before she could stop herself.

‘Indeed, indeed. You never know.’ D’Arbry was polite enough to take it.

‘You could view some samples of my work, on my website. Could I send you the password for it, if you don’t mind?’ Rita heard herself saying.

‘Why not? Why not?’ D’Arbry said in a cautious tone.

‘Au revoir!’ the wife said drily, as she led D’Arbry firmly away.

‘Au revoir!’ Rita was still in a daze at her own boldness. She hung around after settling their bills. She wouldn’t want them to think she was his stalker.

As Rita stepped out in the slightly cooler air, and stood on the sea’s edge, she felt like she could spread her arms, and  hug all the stars in the sky all at once.

Was this the official end of her nerdery? She’d actually behaved like Chad would, to reel in prospective clients.

//

 

No. She’d better turn back. He’d think she was following him. But the tide of tourists swept her forward. Perhaps she’d get lost in them.

Was he waving to her? Some of the Chinese tourists waved back. His crew were staring at her too. She stood out from the Chinese horde like an Indian thumb, in her colourful kurta and green jeans. Rita had to wave back. It would be rude not to. No, actually, he was beckoning her over. She stepped over gingerly into unknown territory, elbowing her way out of the crowd.

‘Ah, mademoiselle l’architecte! Are you enjoying your visit here? Perhaps you can help us?’

Rita nodded and shrugged. Resisted saying, with what?

‘Perhaps you can walk up and down the side of this garden with this young man here? We don’t need actors, just real people, but we need to shoot it from different angles, so that’s why we’ll ask you to do it several times. Is that OK with you?’

Rita nodded again. After all, he’d accepted her card without a murmur. She just hoped no one at the company would spot her in this documentary.

D’Arbry turned back to the man in the shades, who took them off. It couldn’t be Pontio-Pizzari! Of course, it made sense. D’Arbry would need to interview some experts for this documentary.

‘So as I was saying, the Patio de la Acequia or the Court of the Water Channel is the only place in the world, where natural hot water flowed in winter, and cold water in summer. Built in the 1300s…’

‘Excuse me,’ Rita found that her right hand had risen up by its own accord, as if she was in a class.

Coupé!’ D’Arbry shouted, but his cameramen went on filming anyway. Both men looked at her with irritation. She was supposed to be a walking, talking piece of decoration, not a real person with even half a brain.

‘The palace complex in Fatehpur Sikri built in the 1500s by Akbar had just such a system.’

‘Ah, oui?’ D’Arbry looked doubtful.

‘Fatehpur Sikri is about 40 to 45 kilometres away from Agra in India. Where you have the famous Taj Mahal. Please feel free to check it up, before you make a statement like that on TV. You know, what with the Internet and all, many Indians could be watching your show too.’ Rita made to step away towards the absent-minded young man with whom she was supposed to be walking up and down. Pontio-Pizzari looked furious.

‘Indeed, indeed. Indian audiences. Why not? Why not?’ D’Arbry shot off some instructions off to his harassed looking crew. ‘Do go on, mademoiselle, er, I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.’

Rita quickly filled them on in Fatehpur Sikri and its similarities with the Alhambra, including the red stones, the water systems, and the architectural elements originating in the Middle East. Pontio-Pizzari started arguing about the fact that the Indian city was built almost two hundred years later in the 1500s, but D’Arbry stepped in smoothly, as some make-up people started fussing around Pontio-Pizzari, drawing his attention away from Rita.

‘Do you mind if we get some of those sentences on camera? You will be paid, of course. As an expert consultant.’

‘But, I’m sorry I’m not exactly a specialist on Mughal architecture. You’ll find many more in India.’ Rita backed away. Pontio-Pizzari nodded vigourously, as he fired off a cannon of objections to D’Arbry in French.

‘But all those scholars are not here. And you’re a qualified architect, are you not?’

Rita nodded.

‘So what do you think? Just a few statements or two about the similarities to this place near the Taj Mahal? Just keep them brief and to the point.’

Rita wondered if her company would allow her to appear on TV. Richard would be furious that his junior would appear on TV, and not him. But then, he wasn’t an Indian expert.

Pontio-Pizzari was sweating and muttering about editing out her scenes in French, and D’Arbry was nodding to pacify him.

Well, if Pontio-Pizzari was going to be such an old stick in the mud about the whole thing, she was damned if he was going to stop her.

//

 

She needn’t change her shrink after all. She may have cut her holiday short because of her job, but she’d progressed in leaps and bounds when it came to socializing (even if it was for work) and putting herself out there on a limb.

In the end, the filming hadn’t turned out to be quite as terrible as she’d first imagined. D’Arbry had a natural style, and he drew her out quite easily. She was a bit self-conscious at first, but soon she got lost in her favourite subject. Were her sentences too long-winded? She’d find out soon enough. Providing that they used her footage. Specially the part where she’d said that the Taj Mahal was much more beautiful than the Alhambra, even though she’d been comparing Fatehpur Sikri to it. It’s only then she’d sign the contract with them. For now, she was content to wander around the Alhambra while the guards tried to shoo them all out.

With the last remaining day of her holiday, she’d treat herself to an expensive meal in a good restaurant. Even if she sat there with just a book for company. You never knew which fish you might be able to land in Marbella. What would Picasso have to say about her surreal experiences in his native land?

 

Sultana Raza

Sultana Raza

Sultana Raza is based in Europe. She has an M.A. in English Literature. Her articles (on the arts, film, and humanitarian issues) and fiction have appeared in numerous publications in English and French.

Her poems have appeared in several journals including Ancient Heart Magazine, India Currents, London Grip, Literary Gazette, Caduceus (Ed. Yale University), the Peter Roe Series, (Tolkien Society UK), The Whirlwind Review, Writer’s Asylum and The New Verse News (USA). More have appeared in Allegro, Muse India, The Voices Project, Copperfield Review, Indiana Voices Journal, Local Nomad, Spillwords, and Daily Gramma. More are due to appear in Bewildering Stories and The Peacock Journal.

Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. She has presented papers in three conferences related to John Keats and J.R.R. Tolkien in 2017, and is due to present at two more conferences in the US in 2018

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