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Seda: Voices of Iran

Reza Jula'i (Short Story) The Night Shift

Translated from the Persian by Farzin Yazdanfar 

It was raining. Rain, mixed with snow, was coming down all evening. Under the dim streetlight hanging from a wooden pole, I could see the small bubbles on the pavement. A carriage passed me, its hood up. I could hear the sound of the horses' hooves. Once again, it was Lalehzar Street in the late hours of a Saturday night in winter.

A woman stood in front of the theater. Under the light of the entrance, her back to me, she must have been waiting for a carriage or a cab. She wore a black overcoat, a scarf with a floral print and sandals not suited to the cold weather. A man pulled down the iron curtain of the theater and locked the door. "Goodbye, Ma'am," he said, limping away.

I thought she was a singer or an actress working at the theater. Hearing my footsteps, she turned around. In the dim light, it took me a while to recall her face the way I had known it many years ago. I asked, "You're Ms. ... I'm not mistaken, you are Ms. Khatereh."

In a hoarse voice she said, "It is damn cold tonight! Do you have something to say to me, young man?" and coughed drily.

"I knew you many years ago. You were my neighbor." I told her what our neighborhood was called and added, "I was in love with your voice." I was too shy to tell her that I was in love with herself as well.

She said, "I'll never find a carriage nor a cab at this hour. Don't you have a car?"

I said, "No, unfortunately I don't...but I'll find a carriage for you."

I regretted having said that when I looked at the deserted street, dark at both ends.

"If I can't find a carriage for you, I'll walk you home and make sure no one bothers you."

"Someone bother me?...Are you kidding?" The cold made her shift from one foot to the other. She coughed.

"You won't get wet if you stand under the canopy." Reluctantly, she went towards the canopy as if she had just become aware of the snow and rain. Under the light, I saw her face clearly. Her hair had turned gray. Her overcoat and her scarf both were old.

I said, "I'd always wanted to see you in the concert at the Grand Hotel," and added with embarrassment, "but I couldn't afford the ticket."

She said, "That bastard! He doesn't let me go home when he closes the box office. Now, I have to shiver in the cold like a dog."

"I loved your voice so much that I decided to learn to play the violin so I could play in your orchestra." Of course, I did not tell her that I hadn't been able to afford a violin and I had become a tailor's apprentice instead and now I had to stay up late and push the needle even on a Saturday night.

Khatereh moved to our neighborhood many years ago - our neighborhood with its long alleys and mud-brick walls; the gurgling sound of the neighborhood women's hookahs; the grocers with their henna-dyed hands using their abacuse behind their old cash registers. Khatereh always wore a red hat and golden shoes. Her voice was loud and high-pitched.

She had rented a big house close to ours and was living there with her old housekeeper. When people in our neighborhood passed her house, they would turn their faces away and walk faster. They had forbidden their children to go near that house. Once in a while, a car would park in front of her home and a few men, dressed in suits and ties with their pomaded hair carefully combed back carrying long black boxes would go in.

My parents would whisper in half-swallowed words about what was going on between those men and that lewd woman. My mother would ask, "Do you think they drink liquor?" My father would answer, "I'm certain of it...That slut!" I didn't know exactly what the word "slut" meant, but whatever it meant, it would make them furious.

I said, "You had a magical voice. When my friends and I became older, we would stand behind the walls of the garden where you had your concerts and listen to your voice intently. We didn't even dare breathe and we made everyone keep quiet."

She asked, "Do you have a cigarette?"

Embarrassed, I answered, "I don't. Do you still sing?" She looked at the sky and said, "How can I get home tonight?" She started walking and I followed her.

I said, "The winter's almost gone. Spring will soon arrive."

She said, "Spring's a long way off. My legs are always hurting me."

I eagerly started walking beside her. I wished I had an umbrella with me. She smelled the way she used to smell in those days.

One summer afternoon, Khatereh sat at a window opening on the street. She wore a sundress that showed her white arms. In her hair pinned to one side, she wore a flower the color of her lips. She smiled at me and said, "Hello ... What is your name?" It took my breath away. "Are you being shy? Every day I see you hanging around here."

Leaning against the window sill, she added, "Poor boy, you seem to be embarrassed. Has the cat got your tongue?"

I was so flustered that I ran away. I didn't tell anyone, not even my friends. They wouldn't have believed me. I wrote her a letter telling her how much I loved her voice and the flower that she had pinned to her hair. She left our neighborhood that same year.

I said to her, "My friends and I used to put our money together to buy your albums."

She said, "There is a carriage over there. Can you get it?"

Under the rain, I ran towards the carriage. I offered the coachman every penny that I had in my pocket and begged him to take us to our destination. As the horses turned towards her, I closed the hood of the carriage. When we reached her, I jumped down and took her arm to help her in.

I sat beside her. The carriage driver grumbled and asked, "Where to?"

"Tell him to go to Mushir A`zam Street." She coughed and added, "Stupid bastard! He doesn't light the charcoal brazier in the ticket office. I've caught a cold."

I could hear the sound of the rain falling on the hood of the carriage and occasionally, the horses snort in a burst of steam. I had nothing to say any more. Her overcoat smelled musty and of moth balls. I had given up my dreams of playing the violin. Instead I was spending my days and nights sewing.

It was completely dark around us.

I wanted to tell her that people had never truely understood her talent at its worth. I wanted to say that people had yet to show their appreciation. But I didn't.

"I was thrown out of your neighborhood," she said. In the dark her face turned towards me. She said, "Would you like to come to the theater?

This made me happy.

"I have a ticket here," she said and opened her purse to look for it.

"I can't find anything in the dark," she said and finally handed me a small piece of paper. "Do you have change for the fare?" she asked.

"Of course, I said. "Don't worry."

She didn't say goodbye when she got off. She said to the coachman, "This gentleman will pay the fare."

With her legs that hurt, she disappeared in the dark street. At the intersection, I got off.

Rain, mixed with snow, was still coming down. I paid the fare. Under the light, I looked at the small piece of paper that she had given me. It was a torn half of a ticket. I pressed it in my fist and walked away.


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