chapter 30 - out of the comfort zone

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Phillips POV

A street bazar.

This was her favourite place!

Why couldn’t she be like normal girls and take me to a mall or a fashion boutique?

I didn’t do well with large crowds and noise and I was about to turn and head back to the car when she grabbed my arm.
I could feel the blood pulsing in my ears, the drone of the noise seemed to try and swallow me whole. Drops of sweat formed on my forehead.

At least at large social events a few shots of vodka or tequila or anything was enough to put me at ease, here there was nothing like that.

I stood there frozen, unable to walk forward and tempted to run back down the tunnel to the calm of outside.

“ Phillip, are you ok?” she asked concerned, gripping my arm.

“ Victoria, I don’t do well in large crowds.” I whispered, scared that what I said would make her think less of me.

“ but you always going to those fancy parties and stuff..”

“ yes  and I am usually very drunk when I do. Why do you think at the banquet I held  your hand so much? having you there comforted me.”

She looked at me right in the eyes and must have realized that I was telling the truth.

‘ I am so sorry, I had no idea! Follow me!” and pulled me into the crowd and let me to an quiet Indian style cafe that was dimly lit  and smelled in incense and spices.

‘ Rama Uncle!” she shouted and hugged an older man, with a pot belly, turban and finely combed beard that was pinned under his chin.

“ how are you? How is aunty? Where is Chotu?” she asked cheerfully.

“ We are fine Beti, Chotu is upstairs, I will get him, your usual?” he smiled at her affectionate while giving me a disapproving look.

‘ oh you still remember! Of course! You make the best pani puri ever! Oh and a glass of mango lassie extra sweet  please.”

We sat down at one of the tables and soon the food was brought out, the pani puri were small deep fried puffed casings filled with  cooked potatoes, sprouted beans,  onions, coriander  and spices and I watched as she poured a dark sauce she called tamarind and coriander chutney into the casings and put  the whole pastry into her mouth.

I followed her and instantly my mouth exploded with an array of flavours.

It was spicy, sweet, sour, crunchy and soft all at the same time. And they were delicious. But despite that, I was defeated by the chillie and ended up coughing and choking on the pani puri.

“ Here.” She said handing me the glass of lassi. ‘ this will help with the heat.”

The quietness of the cafe was a stark contrast to the noise outside and I felt myself relax a bit.

I didn’t have time to thank her when a young boy came running in, his hair wrapped in a top knot and tied in cloth.

‘ Victoria didi! You’re here!’

‘ Chotu! “ she cried out as she hugged him tight.’ Oh my gosh, what has aunty been feeding you? You’ve gone so tall!”

‘not pani puri anymore,’ he said, eying the plates hungrily.

‘ here is your share!” Uncle Rama said bringing out a plate for the young boy. ' Now not too much of these, you are getting fat!' he chuckled.

‘ Uncle Rama immigrated here a few years ago and asked me to help Chotu with his English, he could barely speak word of it when he arrived, not that you could tell.” Victoria explained.

‘ oi  who’s this goonda ?” Chotu asked after he stuffed the last pani puni into his mouth.

‘ this ‘goonda’ is my husband  chotu!” he told him in a tone that told him to watch his manners.

' really? well guess what?' he said quietly but excitedly. He motioned for Victoria to move close and he whispered to her ' I have a girlfriend!" and she broke out in laughter.

' Its not funny! its the truth!" he said cross and annoyed.

It was nice to watch them interact, the fondness between them was obvious.

Our plates were empty and  the crowd had thinned a little outside.

‘ Are you ready to head outside yet or do you want to go home?” she reached out her hand and took mine in hers and gave it a little squeeze.

I nodded. She had spent the past few months doing the things I told her, going places with me that was expected of her. I figured I could try and do the same for her today.

But I didn’t expect there to be an argument about the bill.

Uncle Rama stood at the counter for at least 10 minutes refusing to take any money from Victoria, and in the end she relented, only to signal Chotu and hand him $50 to put into the till secretly.

“ Why did you do that?” I asked, knowing she had paid too much.

‘ Uncle Rama pretty much adopted me into the family when I was tutoring Chotu, he always made me feel like family, but he can be extremely overgenerous and won’t charge people he knows, and people take advantage of that. Its bad for his income, and for such a small cafe like his, every dollar counts.” She said thoughtfully, while looking at the stream of people walking past.

She grabbed my right hand and placed herself between the crowd, keeping me towards the shop frontages.

‘ Let me know if you get too uncomfortable and we will go back, there’s only a few shops I need to go. Oh, and if anyone stops you to take you to a secret store for designer bags and watches, don’t follow them, the bags are fake and these guys can get aggressive especially when they smell money.’ She said, a deep furrow had formed between her eyebrows as she tried to navigate the stream of people.

I took a deep breath and clasped her hand as tight as I dared, enjoying at how well they fit together and also aware that her hand was so tiny and delicate in mine.

Where I had expected to be jostled, bumped into and shoved around, I found that it wasn’t the case, people went about their business, minding themselves and occasionally you would hear cheering as the bumped into old friends. There was the occasional bump and awkward side step, but people generally respected each others personal space.

Victoria pulled me into an Indian grocery store. Inside there were rows of bulk bins filled with spice, spice blends, herbs, dried lentils and other oddities.

There were baskets of perfectly poured spice powders in reds, yellow, and greens. Dried spices of every design and nature, special bled teas that offered everything from helping with weight loss to improving memory, virility and fertility, not to mention the rows upon rows of exotic and ethnic groceries.

But it was quiet with only a few people browsing the aisles.

‘ I need to buy some more spices, the ones mum sent me are almost finished.” She said a bit hesitantly. ‘You can stay up front, Indian grocery stores can be a bit odours if you aren’t used to it.”

I laughed and grabbed a shopping basket and wrapped my arm around her waist.

‘ you can buy as many spices and ugly smelly dried things as you want, as long as you cook for me later ok?”

“ deal! But only if you put  a TV in the study!” She said smiling, not even trying to wriggle out of my arms, and for the next half an hour we walked inside the store, as she picked out spices, letting me smell them occasionally and explained what they were used for, looking like a young couple in love, and I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was to be with her.

If only she could she what the whole world could obviously see.

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