i can’t chat tonight,
is the first line of Ariadne’s email.
believe me i’d rather be doing antyhign that isn’t making renderings for hotel lobbies. the deadline got bumped up and I hvae to cover for Renee because she has the flu or something, but i think she;s faking because she hates me. send a search party and llots of starbucks giftcards if you don’t hear from me within the nbext 36 hrs okay?
As a study in sleep deprivation, it’s impressive. Yusuf takes off his glasses and blinks at the screen.
I think I can manage some Starbucks gift cards and personal one on one tutorials in the mysterious art of spellcheck. Good luck keeping up your balancing act, and let me know if you need to postpone next weekend.
He hits send.
No no no no,
proclaims the text he receives several hours later.
don’t even say that, I nersiouly need to get out of here even if its just for a day or 2
Attached is a photo of Ariadne’s hand clawed around a travel mug approximately the size of Guam. Yusuf has no argument for this.
If you need a change of scenery that nersiouly (is this some sort of architectural term??) then who am I to stand in the way?
Ariadne responds with a photo of something that looks like a seal wearing a monocle.
Yusuf never bothers asking if that was on purpose.
There are many things Yusuf never says.
The two of them are eating, early supper for him and late lunch for Ariadne, who couldn’t pencil him into her schedule for any other time than now. Or at least, Yusuf is finishing his lasagne with one hand, flipping through a notepad with the other, and nodding along while Ariadne talks about Professor Miles asking after her interest in another job. Multitasking is something they never begrudge each other.
“What did you tell him?" he asks, already knowing.
Ariadne savagely devours a handful of crisps. Through the speakers, it sounds a bit like she’s crunching the bones of innocents between her teeth.
“I told him no,” she answers, and leaves it at that.
For a long while they eat in silence, separated by continents and wireless connections. Yusuf starts thumbing through the messages on his phone. One of the most recent is from Arthur’s current mobile number.
“Do you ever think about how none of this makes any sense?” Ariadne says finally, making him startle guiltily in the midst of sending his response. “Normal people don’t have these problems.”
“You’re talking with a bloke who has a cellar full of bodies. All arguments about normal things are invalid.” He wipes his mouth and looks up long enough to flash her a grin.
Even though she’s covered in crumbs and looks exhausted, she gives him one in return.
Text from: Arthur
I know you still tlak to her don’t you. Has shee been alright?
Text to: Arthur
Why am I the only one who can spell?
Text to: Arthur
Stop frowning. She’s doing well.
Text from: Arthur
that could mean anything. And shut up, Im using a phone made for someonw ith tyrannosaurus hands
If Ariadne knows about just how dire his cellar is, she’s never once let on.
Yusuf never offers the information. He makes his living off only giving that to the highest bidders.
Each morning and evening he does his rounds, checks invisible charts.
Malanga, Safir. 82. Retired manufacturing assistant. Fears growing old. Dreams to forestall the inevitable.
When they meet for the weekend in Antalya, as good a halfway point as any between Mombasa and Paris, she looks happy.
Her hand is small and sunburnt around the strap of her shoulder bag, sangria staining her mouth, freckles stippling her sharp nose. When she leaves, the breeze has tangled its way into her hair and she sighs about returning to the chill of France.
Yusuf mentions Arthur’s current work in Kendari, how the climate has been driving him mad, but Ariadne only sighs and admits that it’s been awhile since she last contacted him.
Later in the week, Arthur sends him a perfectly spelled and punctuated thank you.
LaMer, Krishna. 37. Defence attorney who lost his wife and children in a car accident. Dreams to be with them again.
Eames is different. Yusuf speaks with him more often than he does Arthur, though Eames still enjoys occasionally trying to guilt-trip him for accepting Cobb’s bribe before. He never asks Yusuf for anything, but he was one leg of the triangle that collapsed between him, Arthur, and Ariadne. No one walks away from a situation like that without any hangups, not even a thief as accustomed to tumult as Eames. Yusuf has known him long enough to read him when it matters.
There are very few occasions when Eames allows himself to be read.
notthechair: still don’t know why you’d trust cobb, he was a loose cannon waiting to backfire. yr not cut out for that
me: I needed the money.
notthechair: bullocks. for what?
me: Mr. Eames, this might be hard to you to grasp since you only ever look out for yourself. That’s not what I do.
notthechair: that’s not what I do either. And you know it.
notthechair: I heard you’re going to be seeing Ariadne over the hols. Arthur said.
me: he told you that?
notthechair: yea it came up when we were both in sicily
me: How can you be sure he wasn’t lying?
notthechair: once you get him enough wine and get your mouth around his prick, he’ll sing like a canary
me: Thank you, that’s precisely what I wanted to hear. I’ll be sure to tell Ariadne when I see her next. Spread the holiday cheer.
notthechair: could I give you something to pass on to her, do you think?
me: I don’t see why not.
notthechair: cheers, I’ll speak to Arthur about it
me: Spare me the details this time.
Aparicio Flores, Rina. 21. Clinically depressed student for whom therapy wasn’t working. Dreams because her family believes it keeps her from self-destructing completely.
Ariadne is laughing, bright-eyed, sharp-witted, scrappy in worn jeans and smart buckled boots. “That’s you?” she shrieks, looking and sounding like a poleaxed teenager.
Somehow, a surprise visit turned into flipping through several years' worth of photos, things he knows he shouldn’t keep but does anyway, mementos from before he shed the name he used to wear and became Yusuf the dream seller.
“That was before I learned how to grow a proper moustache,” Yusuf says evasively.
Her hand lingers over a photograph of him beaming like a dolt at something off-camera. Mismatched and tired after a day of studying and tamasha, he remembers, but still smiling. “I always thought you grew up in England," she says. "You sound like it, I mean. I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
This is nothing Yusuf hasn’t heard before. “Cambridge has international secondary schools everywhere. I didn’t go abroad until med school.”
Ariadne nods, sighs, “I can’t believe I won’t get to see you again until Christmas,” and turns the page.
Curious Ariadne, always inquiring but never judging, never realising just how disarming her talent is. She has half a dozen questions for every photo and Yusuf answers all of them truthfully, tells her about the roommate he once blackmailed into going to lectures for him, about picking up snatches of Hyderabadi Urdu from some friends, about the time he talked Eames into visiting the Nairobi Snake Park. Ariadne's smile stiffens a little at the mention of Eames.
He only hesitates once, when Ariadne traces a face secured beneath flimsy plastic and looks up at him.
“This is her, isn’t it? This is your sister.”
Bhargava, Navita. 34. Nutritionist who ordered an extraction on her fiancé but couldn’t go through with it. Dreams for absolution.
There is nothing normal about what they do; he hadn’t lied about that either.
Having a cellar stuffed with sad souls addicted to dreams is only the tip of the iceberg. There are an alarming number of people who prefer to stay dreaming rather than wake up properly. The underbelly of his shop is like a room full of anti-Mals.
Yusuf had more than one reason for accepting Cobb’s offer to join the inception team.
“What happens when you go away?” Navita had asked when she first came to him two years ago, imperious and straight-spined and no longer engaged.
“I have Rohit and Patrice to handle the shop and Ibrahim to take care of the downstairs.” There had been displeasure on her face, regret on his. He was supposed to take care of her.
Navita the nutritionist, doing all the things her body needed the least. Passing like a ghost, back down to the cellar where Ibrahim was standing guard.
Years and years before, the two of them would grow herbs, but her skills always far outstripped his own, her ability to make things thrive and nourish with all the effort of a breath. He was always better at sustaining the mind, not the body.
Since the inception, Eames has asked a few times if he’s free for various jobs. Yusuf never takes anything that requires him to leave his den unattended for more than a few days at a time, says he prefers to stay close to home. It’s mostly true.
Text from: Ariadne
I don’t know if it’s right. Maybe I should talk to them more. Thoughts?
Text to: Ariadne
Have I ever told you that your ringtone is “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado?
Text from: Ariadne
Have I ever told you how much you SUCK
Text from: Ariadne
You’d tell me if I dump things on you too much, right? I can’t really talk to anyone else about how I met two guys through dream-share, ended up in a relationship w/ both of them at once and then called it off because that kind of thing really is too good to be true
Text to: Ariadne
You’re a friend, end of story. Believe me, I’ve endured far worse. :)
“It’s better for you because there’s no gluten,” Navita announces once he’s inhaled an appalling amount of rajgira puri. She’s smiling, so pleased with herself that he couldn’t tell.
Quite regularly, Yusuf finds her taking over his kitchen, throwing together concoctions that leave her smelling of cumin and coriander. Growing up, he used to tease her for playing with weeds. These days, she turns the tables as professionally as possible by reeling off healthier alternatives to seemingly every dish he enjoys.
“You don’t do this with your patients, I hope,” he says, finishing his last bite anyway, wondering how many patients she has left after taking another leave of absence.
“Of course not. That would be judgmental and obnoxious. You’re a very special case.”
“Charmed, I’m sure.”
She smooths at a crease in her sleeve, as if sleeping in the same clothes for the past several hours isn’t enough to merit a wrinkle or two. “Are you handling supper or am I?”
“Do you feel like ordering out?” He spreads his hands. “I have to meet with someone about a customisation later or I’d cook myself.”
“I don’t trust your taste in takeout. What are you in the mood for?”
“What was it you did last time?”
After a long pause in which Navita seems more concerned with staring out the window than anything else, he prompts, “It was good.”
She looks pensive. “I’m sure it was.”
“Do you even remember what we ate?” he asks bluntly.
“That,” Navita answers without looking up, “was a long time ago.”
It had been vatha kuzhambu, just two days before.
Yusuf is already reciting her entire psychological history in the back of his mind, reminding himself that disorientation is a common side effect, that all her vitals were fine when she last woke. He gets to his feet, the keys a cool familiar weight in his palm. “I need to talk to Ibrahim. Don’t expect to go back under for another twelve hours.”
He feigns casualness. “What was that?”
“You mean eight.”
“No, I mean twelve.”
Navita’s gaze thins. “Everyone gets eight off hours between sessions. Everyone.”
“Unless I think they need more,” says Yusuf. “This is my illegal establishment and I do still make the rules.”
Yusuf has contracts with each of his patients, and one of their many stipulations is that no one is to be under for more than twelve hours at a time. It would never do to let word get out that he lets his clients' conditions worsen and their bodies atrophy, as others do.
The last time Navita visited, she stayed for a month before he made her leave. He isn’t sure he can do it again.
The next day, after she resurfaces once more, he makes himself a sandwich on white bread for lunch so Navita has a reason to recoil and take him to task for it, but she doesn’t.
“Harry and Priyasha are getting married,” she says finally, after silently sitting for hours with the telly on. “You remember Harry, don’t you?”
Yusuf doesn’t ask if she plans to attend.
For supper, he throws together what turn out to be some very palatable shrimp enchiladas, but Navita only nibbles at a powdered doughnut she picked up at the corner store.
And this, this is why they never meet in Mombasa for long, instead picking whatever countries suit their fancy. Ariadne shares her secrets, but Yusuf has learned not to share all of his. It’s one thing chatting with her online whilst the dreamers sleep below his feet; it’s quite another to imagine her meeting Navita face to face.
There’s an incident one morning when one of them (Azujie, Toluwani. 55. Former extractor, former husband, former father. Dreams to relive.) doesn’t wake, goes into anaphylactic shock, and has to be rushed to Aga Khan. The proceedings take ages, but he stabilises eventually and Yusuf has an understanding with some of the doctors working there, which greases the wheels considerably.
When he returns, Navita is sitting behind the front counter like she owns the place.
“Have you got a girlfriend?” she asks.
Yusuf blinks. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your friend, the gori, the one in Paris. You talk to her an awful lot, don’t you?”
“She’s a friend, yes,” says Yusuf. “She went through a rough relationship not long ago and I like to keep up with her, make certain she’s doing all right. Maybe you should get out more if you’ve got time to be this nosy, no?”
“You’re my brother,” she shoots back, mock-offended. “You’re supposed to take care of me first. What happened to your priorities?”
Imtiaz Ramdayal, that had been his name, and they had met at a conference in Pretoria. Together for three years, engaged for one, and then Navita began to doubt.
You can’t build a relationship on mistrust, Yusuf had told her, hypocrite that he was, and it had seemed sensible at the time. He dealt with unscrupulous not-to-be-trusted folk all the time, but his sister should never have to.
Their parents had always said it was his responsibility as much as theirs to look after her. He did try, generally with great success, though there had been the time he promised to stop by and take care of her flat when she was away only to end up accidentally killing all her houseplants and half the garden. Navita was constantly experimenting with organic home remedies and liked to grow her own supplies whenever possible. Yusuf remembers the rajgira had been one of the few to survive. Almost impossible to kill, Navita told him once, and customisable as a good vial of somnacin. He had never bothered keeping his business a secret from her.
In his defence, he was used to looking after people and chemicals but not anything as peculiar as plants. Navita had been spitting gaalis left and right when she returned, the walls echoing with cries of shit and chutiya and I cannot believe how incompetent you are.
Perhaps he hadn’t tried very hard with the plants, but advising her about trust was something he believed in with all his heart in addition to seeming like the sort of thing that could never go wrong. And then Imtiaz had killed himself when she called off the engagement.
She had shown up at his door for the first time exactly six weeks afterward.
“My priorities are exactly where they need to be,” he tells her, watching as one of the cats saunters over to inspect her primly folded hands.
“How did you feel when you woke up?” he asks, same as always. In the earlier commotion, he hadn’t been able to monitor anyone else’s vitals before waking them and letting them loose until it came time for them to dream through their next fix.
Usually the answer is sad, or hungry, or nothing but a forced smile.
“Okay,” says Navita.
“No, I mean I woke up feeling okay this time.”
When Navita cries, she does it quietly, politely, dabbing at her face as if the tears are nothing but an inconvenience. The cat, disinterested, hops to the floor and slips back outside.
“I dreamt he died of scrofula. I wish he had, instead of the other way. I wish he had.”
When Eames and Arthur announce their intention to visit, Yusuf is surprised to hear they plan on arriving together. They seem civil enough, at least, when they settle into his kitchen and start eying the waragi. Yusuf believes in liquid courage as much as the next man, though if pressed he couldn’t say which of them needs it the most.
“What is it?” Arthur asks warily.
“Amazing,” Eames says with relish, and grins broadly at the way Arthur’s face contorts after he tries a swallow. “You'll have a chest full of hair in no time.”
Conversation flows easily, thanks either to the waragi or the history the three of them have with one another. The chiwda and maandazi probably help things along as well, since both of them extol the food more than once. Yusuf thanks them, never mentions that he’s only responsible for one and Navita the other.
Bloody hell, Eames had said, setting foot in the cellar for the first time. Ten, twelve, all connected. Yusuf had offered no specifics then and he has no intention of offering any now. He had, however, kept a close eye on Eames to be certain he didn’t go searching for answers on his own, making doubly sure that he never spoke more than a few words to Ibrahim, who had probably forgotten more about dreaming than Yusuf had learned to date.
When Eames catches Arthur’s eye and the two of them each produce one neatly wrapped parcel apiece, Yusuf can’t help arching an eyebrow.
“This seems very elaborate for the sake of passing along Christmas presents. Why are you coming to me about this?”
Eames shrugs and slouches further into his seat, taking up as much space as possible in a graceful sprawl. “We’ve been over this, but let me reiterate. If she wants to see me, she has to be the one to say. I’m not going to intrude this time.” This is probably a first for Eames, but Yusuf refrains from saying so and turns to look at Arthur instead.
He’s a little flushed, evident in the apexes of his cheeks and the boyish arches of his ears, but his voice is low and calm. “I miss her. Maybe I miss the three of us together. Eames gets a lot more tolerable when she’s around.”
Yusuf looks at them, hearts on the table and bound up in cheerful holiday gift wrap, and he wants to say he can’t give them to her, that the wisest course of action is for them to fight their own battles and let him fight his own. He’s not their messenger boy, he’s not going to be the one with his head on the block when Ariadne asks him what to do and he finally has to answer.
“You’re really okay with doing this?” Arthur asks sharply, ever the detail-oriented point man.
“Yeah, cheers,” Eames adds before Yusuf can reply. “It’s good of you, mate.”
All three of them might as well be passed out in his den, connected by PASIV lines, sharing the same dream they can’t quite shake themselves out of.
“You’re welcome,” says Yusuf. “Please, eat some more.”
“I can’t wait to see you,” Ariadne tells him the next time she calls, sounding breathless and young with enthusiasm.
“Likewise,” Yusuf says, looking at the gifts and lying through his teeth. "I'm looking forward to it."