x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Gift of the Magi, retold for Abu Dhabi

Denise Roig reimagines O Henry's beloved story, The Gift of the Magi, the quintessential holiday tale, a celebration of devotion, generosity and sacrifice.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

O Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi" was first published in a New York City newspaper in 1905. The saga of Della and James, a couple as rich in love as they are poor in material wealth, has become the quintessential holiday tale, a celebration of devotion, generosity and sacrifice. Here is writer Denise Roig's modern retelling, set in Abu Dhabi

Twenty-three dirhams and 25 fils. That is all. And 18 dirhams of it is in coins. Coins saved one and two at a time by sacrificing a coffee on a late-night shift, mending pantyhose with nail polish instead of buying a new pair, texting Jimmy rather than calling. Her salary - 900 dirhams a month - doesn't go far. Three times Adella counts it. Twenty-three dirhams and 25 fils. And the next day will be Christmas.

There's nothing to do but lock herself in the shared bathroom, bury her head in a towel and cry. But she's due downstairs in the lobby washrooms in five minutes. Floors to mop, mirrors to wipe. Adella pats cool water on her eyes, slips back into the darkened hotel room. When she first came to work in Abu Dhabi a year ago, returning to this room each night had made her heart sink. It doesn't much resemble the other guest rooms in the hotel. With no tourists or businessmen to impress, it's just three single beds, a suitcase tucked under each. Adella has tried to make her corner personal: a framed picture of Jimmy and little Eddie on her nightstand taken the summer before, a nosegay of roses - petals crisp and yellow - that guests at a wedding left behind, a small cross carved from olive wood. "Remember who you are and where you come from," Mama said when she gave it to her. Adella tries hard to do this, but this place is so far from the Philippines, so far from the family home with its breezy porch, the kitchen with its uneven floor and heavenly smell of frying plantains, the abundant garden always in need of pruning. A work in progress, Jimmy laughingly calls it. But still, home.

Adella moves to the window, careful not to brush against Maribeth's bed. Her roommate has just come off a long shift, hasn't bothered to take off the beige blouse that is part of their uniform. She stirs as Adella tiptoes by, murmuring something in her sleep. It's not quite 5pm, but already the light is going. The approaching twilight made her feel farther away from Jimmy than the 20 kilometres that separate them. A housekeeping job in Jimmy's hotel had been promised by the agency back home, but like so many other promises made … oh, well, she can't think about this now. It's Christmas, isn't it? From six storeys above, Adella watches a couple push a pram around the fountain. Wind lifts the edge of the woman's white headscarf and the man catches it in his hand.

***************

Everything depends on tonight's tips. Jimmy plunges his hand again into the front pocket of his uniform trousers, fingering the coins, willing them to be more. He'd always thought the holidays made people more generous. Of course, business is down this year, like everywhere else. For a Christmas Eve the lobby is echoingly quiet - only a few private parties in the restaurants tonight and one banquet. "Please," he'd begged Aziz, his boss, three days ago. "Please let me work the large party." Tips from a banquet, especially one expertly, graciously served, could more than triple what he'd managed to save so far. Aziz said he'd think about it, but this morning assigned five other waiters to the event. "Lobby café, noon to 10," he told Jimmy and walked away before Jimmy could ask him to reconsider. The lobby cafe is a cluster of low ebony tables and bright-orange banquettes set back from the hotel's front doors. The menu is minimal: coffee, sandwiches, biscotti. Ladies talking too long over tea, kids parked with nannies. Low tippers, non-tippers.

He's been plotting their Christmas Day for weeks. It takes plotting to even arrange the same day off. Although he's been working at the hotel for nearly four years, it barely amounts to seniority. Some of the older waiters, like Raj and Manuel, have been here 12 or 15. It was Raj who traded his day off with Jimmy. "You have wife here," he said. Raj has two daughters in college back home in Bangalore. The last time he could afford to go home was three years ago. "What to do?" he says.

The last time Jimmy and Adella saw each other was in September, the humidity making their joined hands moist as they walked around the yard at St Joseph's Cathedral. Adella had been almost shy at first. "Your hair," she finally said. "Too short?" he asked, an old bit of married business. Adella adores Jimmy's thick hair, the way it falls into his eyes, moves when he walks. Years ago, she cried when he came home with a buzz cut. "No," she said. "It's perfect." They walked around the church compound many times that afternoon, talking about Eddie and his school, about Jimmy's mother, who hadn't been well, about his job and her job and how much it would cost to put a new roof on the house back in Cebu. Over dinner at Chow King later, he felt his chest rise and fall. He was breathing, really breathing, as if he'd been holding his breath, waiting to exhale, since the last time he'd seen her.

Tomorrow morning, Christmas morning, they will meet at church for the Tagalog mass. It will be crowded and they will probably have to stand, but they will not mind. They will see old friends, maybe some cousins from home. But they will not linger long in how's-it-going? conversation. Jimmy will bring sandwiches from the hotel, Adella some fruit and they'll make their way by bus to the Corniche. Once settled on the sand - bring blanket, Jimmy makes a mental note - he'll pull a small packet from his pocket and place it in her lap.

It's the perfect gift for Adella - small, beautiful, yet practical. He's been eyeing it since forever in one of the ground-floor shops at Hamdan Centre: a pink suede mobile-phone case studded with heart-shaped rhinestones. Adella's mobile is her prized possession - not because it boasts any special features, but because it connects her to home, and to him. "My lifeline," she said the last time they were together and kissed it, giggling. He'd checked last week; two pink cases were still left. But it wasn't the availability of the case that worried him tonight. The case costs 100 dirhams. He has 47. Two weeks ago it had looked promising, his tips surely accumulating in the days leading up to the holiday. But customers seem distracted this year, oblivious even. Last week a party of eight in the hotel's steakhouse ate and drank up a bill of 4,000 dirhams, then drifted out three hours later, leaving nothing at all. "Maybe forget," said Raj. And now this: an empty cafe, Joy to the World playing discreetly through the lobby's speakers, untended boys circling the massive, gold-flecked Christmas tree on roller shoes. Adella, he thinks. What to do?

***************

She knew the moment she saw it that it was made for Jimmy. Certain things just belong to certain people. She imagines Jimmy pulling his mobile from his back pocket, people turning, stopping to admire the sleek black leather case. His phone is a few years old, the face scratched, but Jimmy sees no point in buying a new one. "Each thing we buy slows us down," he tells her. Jimmy has a plan: three more years for Adella, six for him. Then, God willing, they will have enough to buy a taxi service back home and send Eddie to a better school. He's a smart little boy.

But every time Adella vacuums the hotel gift shop, she admires the mobile case displayed in the window. Doesn't Jimmy deserve this? The shop manager, another Filipina, has promised Adella a 20 per cent discount. She could offer 75 per cent; it would still be more than Adella can cobble together by tomorrow.

And then as she's emptying the trash in the ladies' room, something comes. On a five-minute break she takes the elevator up to the room. Maribeth is awake now, watching TV. She still has her uniform on. Fatigue weighs on her pretty face.

"Del." She pats the bed for Adella to join her. "You still on?"

"Till three," says Adella.

"We must be crazy," says Maribeth.

"Maribeth," says Adella, sitting down. "You know my mobile …?"

And it is decided. Maribeth's phone has been acting up for weeks. Adella returns downstairs, 80 dirhams richer.

***************

Jimmy is grateful the stores downtown stay open so late. At home on Christmas Eve, everything closes by six, everyone hurrying home to cook, eat and dress for midnight mass. Here, it is and it isn't Christmas. He remembers - hurrying himself now to Hamdan Centre - his confusion that first December, seeing the red, green, white and black decorations for National Day at LuLu and mistakenly thinking they were for Christmas. It seems pretty funny to him now. Still, he's grateful for the tolerance here. St Joseph's is testament to that.

Though it's nearly 11, the shop is still open. The deal is struck, the little package slipped into his trouser's pocket.

***************

Christmas morning comes, balmy and glorious. But Jimmy has to work after all - Aziz shrugs, can't be helped - and when Adella tries to call him from St Joseph's, borrowing a mobile from a friend, there is no answer. She's waited through two masses, scanning the crowds for her husband, walking countless times past the giant Christmas tree decorated with white petals. But Jimmy's mobile sits in a Hamdan Centre shop, battery and sim card removed, for resale. 60 dirhams. Cheap.

Jimmy calls Adella many times that day, borrowing Raj's mobile. If only he could reach her. The message says the same thing over and over: The mobile you are trying to reach has been switched off. Maribeth is sleeping before her next shift.

That evening, Adella finds herself at the window again. She's put Jimmy's gift on the nightstand with her treasured cross and photo. She looks across the island to the lights of the city and she feels him there.

***************

The magi, as you know, were wise men - wonderfully wise men from Arabia, Persia and India - who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were, no doubt, wise ones. Wiser perhaps than a couple in Abu Dhabi who most unwisely sacrificed for each other their greatest treasures, their lifelines to one another. But perhaps of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. O, all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.

 

William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pen name O Henry, crafted more than 600 short stories about everyday people going about the daily adventure of living. Many involve surprising coincidences and twist endings. To read The Gift of the Magi in its original, go to www.online-literature.com/o_henry. The last lovely lines of this Abu Dhabi version are O Henry's. They cannot be improved upon.

 

Denise Roig is the author of two short-story collections, A Quiet Night and a Perfect End and Any Day Now. To hear Denise Roig reading The Gift of the Magi, listen to Abu Dhabi Classics FM tonight at 10 (87.9FM in Dubai; 91.6 in Abu Dhabi; or 105.2 in Al Ain) or visit www.thenational.ae