The rattling woke up Rimmi. She had just begun to drift off to sleep, something that didn’t happen too often on the several times she was inside a metal tube, several thousand miles off the ground. “…the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign…” a sweet voice intoned, doing nothing to settle the wave of panic that was beginning to rise up in Rimmi. Panic brought out the unlikely philosopher in her. To combat fear, she reflected, one must go through it, not around it.
She clenched her palms, and leaned forward without taking off her fur-lined sleeping mask. Beads of sweat were forming on her forehead. Air turbulence was her undoing. Her poise and image, carefully cultivated over years of hard work and dedication, left no chink in her persona. If someone took a picture of me sweating and trembling at a little air turbulence, the press will have a field day, she though wryly.
She felt a light touch on her arm. “Maam, can I offer you some sparkling lime water?” she took off her sleeping mask and looked at the friendly, sympathetic face of the stewardess. “Yes please”, she said gratefully, took the proffered glass and gulped it down. “Some mints, if you need them” the girl smiled gently, placed a few mints on Rimmi’s side-table, and walked away to her seat. Rimmi smiled, and inhaled, feeling instantly lighter. Certainly cabin crew was not allowed to walk around during turbulence, were they? She took another sip of the lime soda. Oh, this was just what she needed. A light sprinkling of chaat masala would have been perfection.
A couple of hours later, the flight landed in Paris. Rimmi smiled and waved at the stewardess as she disembarked, unnecessarily putting on her Prada sunglasses, there was no sunlight in the vestibule that connected the plane to the airport.
Delphine smiled back at the beautiful Indian woman with the cascading hair, and voluptuous body. She had been the first passenger to exit Business Class. Delphine’s crew-member, Hasina, nudged her and whispered, “How amazing was that, huh? Rimmi Chopra smiled at you!”. Then, seeing Delphine’s questioning face, she said, “The Bollywood star? Come on, you must know her!”. Delphine just shrugged, she had no interest in film stars, or films, be it Hollywood or Bollywood.
Her shift done, she took the airline-provided staff cab back to her rental studio off the Rue de Garonne, a centrally located, if somewhat shifty neighborhood. The cab zipped off as she stepped onto the flight of stairs leading to her apartment building. A million thoughts ran through her head as she fumbled for her keys. Her son would be asleep, it was nearly 10 pm now, and he had school in the morning. She had called to check on her elderly neighbor was gracious enough to watch her son when she was flying. Saying a silent thanks for Madame Pepin, she suddenly recalled her son telling her about a school project of his. Something about making a science project… an experiment with carbon dioxide, was it? She struggled to remember, her frustration increasing as she scrambled around for her keys in her tote.
Just then, she noticed a movement in the street. A man wearing a hoodie, his face barely visible in the shadows, was walking briskly towards her. She stiffened and tightened her grip on the bag. The man was nearly at the foot of the stairs, when someone on the street screamed “Hey!” , he cursed reflexively and quickly darted away into an alley, sprinting away. Delphine, frozen at the top of the stairs, looked into the street, a young couple was on the street , looking at her in concern. “Are you okay m’aam?” asked the young man. “Oui, yes, merci, thank you” Delphine smiled, extremely relieved. The couple waved at her and walked on.
Was the hoodie-wearing stranger a wannabe bag-snatcher, or just a chap out on a night walk? Delphine would never know. Right then, her fingers tapped the keys in the bag, and she let herself in quickly, and exhaled slowly. She had been holding her breath without realizing it. Bien sûr! she thought, it was a science project on hydrogen sulphide and it wasn’t due for a week. Phew!
Allison and Chris held their hands a little tighter, turning back to make sure the petite, pretty lady with the blond curls had entered her apartment building. Paris had been an eye-opener so far. Alisson and Chris had met in the plumbing and hardware fittings store in Delaware where they both worked as sales assistants. Now newly-weds with just a week into their marriage, they were looking forward to some good-old fairy-tale romance. Although the romance was certainly there, especially at times like when they took that moon-dappled river-cruise down the Siene, the beautiful candle-light dinner outside the bistro on the cobbled streets of Montmarte, the street performers that burst into an impromptu serenade everywhere they went, and certainly after downing a champage bottle, in their hotel room, under the covers, there was no want of romance.
But, the city was so jaded! The subways were filthy, hordes of tourists with crying babies swarmed the Louvre, and the Eiffel tower with its blinking lights……oh the Eiffel Tower that Alisson dreamt of kissing Chris under, was merely an eyesore of a giant metal –mesh in the daytime and a gaudy, blinking unsightly sight at night.
And now, they had witnessed what may have been a snatch-and-run, had Chris not yelled out in the street. Disappointed, they returned to their hotel.
The next day, after a morning of visiting museums, and snacking on yet another banana and Nutella crepe, Allison and Chris happened to take a wrong turn and instead of reaching the Notre-Dame Cathedral, they landed up on a winding cobble-stone lane that led them to a little garden. A little patch of tranquility in an otherwise lively city. A stream gently gushed under a wooden bridge pathway. “Can we please take a selfie here, I love this place. I promise, it won’t go on Facebook Chris!” Alisson knew how Chris rolled his eyes whenever she ‘checked in’ to a new restaurant or uploaded photos of their vacation.
No matter how much Chris stretched his arm (“You have the longer arm Chris, so you be our selfie stick ok?”), or how many angles they tried, their photos were just not cutting it for Alisson. She noticed a man sitting on a bench a short distance away. He seemed very quiet and withdrawn, as if he was happy in solitude. She thought to ask him to take a picture of them, but then quickly dropped the idea.
As if on cue, the man himself bounded up to them, his mouth opening in a shy smile, “Mad-um, sir, I can take a picture for you, ok?”. Alisson, pleased and thankful, showed the man quickly how to touch the circle on the screen, and how to please, if he didn’t mind, make sure the picture was in focus.
Happy to oblige, the man took a few different shots, from various angles, which made Alisson very, very happy, and Chris, relieved. They thanked their spontaneous photographer who waved and went back to his bench. Chris looked at his GPS. “Damn, the Cathedral was right on the turn”, he said and he led the way back to the winding cobble-stone path.
Refat looked at the retreating backs of the couple. Americans, he thought. So cheerful and chatty. Refat had seen all kinds of tourists in his many years in Paris. Refat was reminded of his days as a cab driver, when it seemed that every other passenger in his cab was a honeymooning couple. That made him think wistfully of his wife back in Dhaka, and his shoulders drooped involuntarily.
He walked to the 7-series Beamer that he had parked outside the garden. The jardin des sens was the only place in Paris where he could find some peaceful, quiet time where he could just relax after completing logging a 24-hour shift. If his routine was exhausting, Refat showed no sign of it. From his early days, when he entered France on forged documents vias Italy, to the present day, Rehat had worked his way from being a migrant to becoming a naturalized French citizen.
He donned his cap, part of his uniform and got into the driver’s seat, after a quick check to make sure his shoes and uniform were spotless. He drove off towards the agency to drop off the car and to get briefed on his next assignment. At the agency, his supervisor told me about the event management company that had hired them for the next few days. “…an international film festival, with VVIP passengers…” said monsieur Claude, puffing away at his potent Cuban cigar. “…pick up Client R from the Theatre de la Ville, there will be a lot of press which you must ignore….” He said, handing over a document with the client’s details.
Refat looked at the papers and gulped.
“Rimmi Chopra!!” Refat thought, his mouth dry. This was not just any star, this was his daughter’s beloved ‘RC’, whose 5-Taka posters covered every conceivable inch of her room. The one whose movies she would sometimes skip school to watch. Refat would then hear his wife lamenting for a whole minute during their weekly international call. “Jaan, can we not waste our money talking about this please..” he would then berate her. Refat snapped out of his reverie, and wondered if it was appropriate to ask the star for her autograph after his assignment. The agency had a strict code of conduct for its chauffeurs, and small talk with VIP passengers was forbidden.
Later that night, outside the Theatre de la Ville, Refat, parked in the designated VIP parking area, received a call from Client R’s personal manager. Be ready to pick us up in two minutes she said. He stamped out his cigarette and drove the Beamer towards the red carpet in the entryway. He swiftly stepped out and held the door open. The photographers were almost breaching the velvet rope, jostling for space. A reporter wearing a tuxedo was speaking into the mic, giving a live report “Rimmi Chopra’s foray into French film seems to be a resounding success…”
Flashbulbs popped and a buzz went through the crowd as a stunning figure sashayed down the red carpet. Refat was at the ready with the passenger door open wide. Rimmi Chopra stopped for a few words at the mic, and then her manager quickly ushered her into the Beamer. Refat swiftly got into the driver’s seat and weaved the car through the throng of press, onto the road.
Refat tried to glance into the mirror. ‘RC’ was positively beaming. Her eyes were moist and she looked ecstatic. Her manager was effusively gushing about the film in English, Refat was trying to overhear but could only catch a couple of words. “…Cannes is in the bag, …maybe an Oscar nomination …” he heard.
A few minutes later, he pulled up at the Hotel George V, Four Seasons. Smoothly he opened the door, and the magnificent creature in the passenger seat elegantly let herself out. “Today was my brightest night” she said, a little dreamily, looking into the distance, to no one in particular. Refat touched the tip of his hat and made to leave. She smiled at him, reached into her clutch and pulled out a wad of Euros. “That’s for you” she said, with a slight smile “My Bebo always said, acts of kindness linger long after you are done sharing…there you go, I’m a philosopher again” she laughed at her own joke. Then without waiting for a response, she took off, her heels clinking on the marble stairs.
Refat looked at the notes in his hand, stunned. He was going to Dhaka this winter after all.