Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Featured Writer, Chandni Singh

Mr. Bora

It was 8:30 pm. Late enough in the sleepy town of Tezpur for the last shop to close. Just a few forgotten neon lights flickered uncertainly in the empty streets. No eerie howls pierced the silence, the mandatory drunkard with his foolish dance was missing and even the moon had deserted her battalion of stars.

He sat at the counter, with as much diligence as one could put in an activity so mundane. His grey hair was neatly combed back, a fiercely straight parting firmly demarcating every strand’s territory. His half-sleeved brown sweater hid the defiant stain which ran across the front of his shirt in embarrassing conspicuousness. He looked around the table and spotting a speck of dust, flicked it away with his finger. The act made him smile in satisfaction. He opened the brown ledger book, his eyes running over the entries of the day. Each entry was diligently noted down in his meticulous handwriting, all the details relegated to their respective columns. Perfunctory pleasantries were exchanged with each person that came to his counter, hospitality meted out in its briefest form. As he looked at the list of people on the page, he smiled fondly.

The little boy with his Punjabi family had demanded to hold the keys to his room and inspected it in great detail before approving it as his lodging for the night. A harried student had asked for the cheapest room available, on his way to sit for a potentially life-altering entrance exam. The young couple had been predictably irritating, with their demands for a room with a view. Whoever came to Tezpur for a view? It was a place you came to when you were on your way to somewhere. Tezpur was almost never a destination, just an inconvenient halt on the way to a prettier place. An inconsequential blip on the traveller’s itinerary as he moved onto more adventurous landscapes.
He looked at his ink pen, something he cleaned and refilled every morning and came second only to the ledger. It was as old as the lodge and certainly better kept. The corner of one page was slightly folded – he straightened it out with the tip of his finger making sure not to leave any smudgy prints. His ledger book was his temple with him as its self-appointed guardian. The cook or cleaner were reprimanded for as much as laying their eyes on it. Even the customers were not allowed to enter their details in it. He kept his precious book under lock and key, with the key hanging safely on a string around his neck.

The rhythmic ticking of the clock was making him feel sleepy. He slumped forward slightly, his chin digging into his chest, inches above the V-neck of his dull brown sweater. It had been a long day and the fatigue was reflected in his heavy breathing. Suddenly he was woken up by the commotion downstairs. As he opened his eyes he tried to focus on the person standing before him. There she stood with her tresses framing her face in untidy abandon. She placed a long hand on the desk and through a haze of grogginess he realized she was asking him for a vacant room. Taken in by her unfathomable eyes, he fumbled between scoffing her off as an unattainable dream and swooning in a celebration of her beauty. Realizing she was as real as the night, he opened the ledger book, prolonging the activity in order to steal glances at this lissome wonder that had graced his doorstep. As he wrote down her name in painful neatness, she pulled out a bottle of water from her backpack. He watched her carefully uncap it and raise it up quite high before she tilted it slightly. He noticed how her little finger didn’t quite curl around the bottle with its taller cousins – it was happier suspended in mid-air. He was happy to see the nail on it was slightly chipped – it made her more human somehow. He remembered thinking that it even made her more attainable for some inexplicable reason. He heard the water move down her throat.

At that precise moment, he asked her for her address, to note down in the book. Startled she choked and he would remember the sequence of the events that followed in slow motion. She choked and one manicured hand moved to cover her mouth. A second too late. The water spurted forward, out of that perfect mouth onto his ledger. The neatly arranged names gasped in amazement at being defiled in a manner so degrading. The Punjabi family ran into the finicky couple. The student flowed down in resigned dejection. Numbers bumped into each other in dilute hurry. The pages cooked up a soggy story. Horrified, Mr. B gasped, his mouth opening and closing in alarmed rapidity.
That night he slept to the sound of the cook sniggering.

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