Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Featured Rajshree Trivedi

Not On A Hot Tin Roof

Somewhere at the edge of the dark, blue planet, the coconut trees  quivered for a moment and then, stood still.  But not the waters. They had many tasks to finish.  Rushing to meet their beaus -the  mermen,   the eely  waves carried with them the sea shells, as if racing with the  cindrellas  holding  their shoes  in  hands,  to reach the ball room on time. 

The duo followed her. She was aware of the chase. The exercise of recalling  where she had seen one of them- the one with the hair coloured as black as coal and beard as white as the rough snow-was again turning out to be a futile one; futile for the seventh consecutive day.  For the first three days, she had taken them to be  mere passers-by. But for the last four days (including today), she had royally ignored their presence thereby,  discarding all the dangerous possibilities as merely the irrational doubts of her mind. Well, ignorance is not always bliss.

 Trying to balance herself on the dimly sparkled sands, turning grey and podgy with the waters receding, she   now started climbing the stony steps  and took the  Beach Road.  The duo was still following her.  With her eyes turning askew, she   skedaddled into the first left lane and heaved a  great sigh of relief.  “Oof!  So, here I am.  Now, safe and sound……” But her relief was uncannily short lived.  A pack of street dogs suddenly huddled  from somewhere  and  barked furiously at the passers-by. It left her petrified.  “I’ve never seen them before…” She mumbled.  To her shock and surprise, she realised they were onto some other booty.

His first Valentine Day’s gift  had been  a  gambol  before Cheryl   opened the beautifully decorated  cane basket.  With a broad smile  in each of  her saucy eyes, she stood in disbelief as Tahan opened the door for her.   Red heart-shaped balloons, pink flowers, scented candles  and careening ribbons passed her way as she carefully walked across the corridor, hand in hand with him, taking enough care so as not to tread upon the pageantry.  The  living room in  that   old-fashioned   house  was aglow with the golden light dripping from the luminous  chandeliers- the  light  brighter than the sun outside the window.  Placed on  the coffee table that stood right in the centre of the room, the frilled basket was beckoning her to disrobe it as quickly as possible. 

 A  short affair followed by a quick, unplanned marriage to Tahan  had  hardly given them any time to share their  secrets,  likes or dislikes.  The pages on the calendar near the open window had as if refused to turn the  flaps. Time had stopped racing with them for more than three months.
While  removing the net   layered folds  one after the other, she  felt she heard a sound. She became alert. Carefully she started digging her fingers once again,  into the basket  only to feel something too spongy. Fluffy? Velvety?  The low woofs were now clearly audible.  She tapped the rim of the basket and picked up the last pucker.  Devastating it was…….it   made her jump, scream and  leap on to the sofa,  and soon she was  hurling    the  fiendish-turned- spiffy  basket out of the open window.  For how long did her teeth chattered she did not know but   Tahan stood there, with his eyes wide open, watching the sudden  high tension drama.  The following Sunday,   Sultan,  the guy next door – the owner of  the sprawling Daniel’s Cottage - couldn’t help bursting into laughter, when Tahan shared the puppy-fiasco story with his new found friend and  neighbour.      

The duo seemed to have been left far behind. Heaving a great sigh of relief, Cheryl  briskly headed towards   the end of the Beach Road. Now  she started following the track  uphill that shone dimly under  the ambers of the yet-not-switched-off streetlights.  It was  mid July and the Mumbai  monsoon had so far not  seen one of those worst rainy days of the season. She did not know she would have to experience it soon; just within the next half an hour’s time.  

Flanked on both the sides of the  road,  the  avenue  still bragged of the rich past,  arraying a few   old-fashioned, ritzy or new-fangled  bungalows amidst  the  rows of  newly  erected  high rise towers.  The towers  did not give her a disgusting feeling today.  She walked briskly  towards the garden where she would take a  halt  everyday before moving further.  Before she  could  perch herself on the wrought-iron bench near  her favourite laburnum tree,  her eyes caught the sight of the duo entering the gate of the garden.  Agitated and panicked, she felt a shiver passing through her body   whereas the fingers on  her forehead went numb with the dampness. Immediately she clutched her bag and  became more careful than ever.   Outside the canopy that covered the wrought-iron bench, a dark, gloomy cloud sent a heavy gush of rains wrapping the garden lawns covered in an ash-grey blanket. She realized she had left the umbrella on the dining  table  while being too fidgety of  wrapping and then, unwrapping the   newly purchased  possession in her handbag. 
 Silas’   Cottage  had been  an  Elysium, the Edenic   cul de sac  for Cheryl and  Tahan. Surrounded by the umbrageous foliage and the pink extravagance  of the  bougainvilleas, the  two  square turrets peeped sneakily from the   corrugated  red clay  tiled roofs. For more than  a century, the  house had stood firm and upright echoing the  history of  the Almeidas  who  moved  there in   1899  with their six sons and   Magdalene, the  daughter; all under the age of ten.  To this date,  it  whispers the stories of all the five   brothers, one after the other, packing off to the African  coasts for better prospects. Joe, the sixth son, the blue-eyed boy of the Almeidas vowed never to leave the  parents. 
There are other tell tales, too.  From the   interstices  of  the  arching trees, the red  bricks of the Cottage murmur in low, husky tones, the     quiet  tale of the romance   that would flower between   Magdalene and  Pedro, the soldier who had  returned from the War. Scores of  those monsoon meetings of the  sweethearts  that would be caught  in the synapses of the  dew-dropped romance  dripping down  the   walls,  would caress- in the years to come- the  sands of the sea shore.  Just like any other  dark love story, this too met with a tragic end; Silas Almeida killing  the penniless Pedro. And Magdalene, the unwedded mother  meeting an untimely death while giving   birth to a son.  Robert,  the  fatherless boy was left to grow up in an orphanage, located far away from Goa, on the highlands of Ooty.   

Tahan was the  third-generation-only- descendent in the lineage; the direct descendent of  Joe Almeida.
Not that Tahan  was too young for being   an orphan but the death of the parents under  mysterious circumstances at the local graveyard had  left him in  a stew. Clueless were also  the local police, the friendly neighbourhood and the church  parishioners.  Some said it was Pedro’s ghost, some marked it as that of  Magdalene Almeida and some said they had been petrified to death.  Sultan’s visits were of course,   the moments of  great relief for Tahan who had been silently suffering  because of the pain and anguish  arising out of impuissance. 

After a couple of months of Tahan’s  return to the blue-lined city,  the  neighbours had been speculating  the date of his departure.  But to everyone’s surprise, Tahan’s  had different plans. None could ever have expected  of  him  to prefer Mumbai over  Copenhagen.    Back in Denmark, he had  qualified himself as a dairy technologist and  the degree  easily landed  him with a top position in a leading multinational beverage company.  After the mysterious   deaths of his parents and his return from Denmark to attend the creamation, Tahan was not quite sure of his decision of staying back at Silas’ Cottage.  But it seemed, he was now changing his decision.

White! White was what  Sultan had  always adored! Not only those immaculate white suits, but also the accessories, cars, cigars, and the Bishop’s  flowers in the garden. The garden that made failed attempts to  peek through the small white  iron gates  to catch the glimpse of the white waters of the sea.  “If only I   could  hold the white sea shells and look straight into the sea …..” Sultan could virtually  hear  the  musical  micro-tones of the Bishop’s  plants,  jamming with  the notes on his violin strains,  trying to catch up  with the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9  being played on his music system.    
Daniel’s Cottage had  undergone  a million rupee makeover before Sultan moved into  the premises. Of course, it was all over  white again,  furnished  with the splendour of  ivory gold  draperies and crystal-lamp shades.  The landscape surrounding the main house gave  the old unkempt garden  a trimmed  formal look with straight-edged  beds  of  white dahlias, and green lawns  trimmed in orderly patterns.  With the neighbour’s prior permission, one of the small white gates was allowed to   run  into the  sideways of the Silas’ Cottage. No wonder  the two  men became good friends in less than a month’s time.
The day was now slowly breaking out with the  walking tracks now  occupied by  quite a few regular joggers  and a few visitors  here and there. Immediately, she regained her composure and  engaged  herself in eavesdropping  on the schmooze of a young couple-  lost in each other’s arms  under a bough.  The  leather bags  hanging on their sides  were more passionately intertwined than them.
  It had been three years now  that she had learnt to live without Tahan. Nothing  else could have ever shaken her from within but  his still body  on the floor after she returned from her work that night.  No consolations,  sympathies or condolences could ease her tribulations thereafter,  until one day she resolved with firm courage and determination to find out the cause of the mysterious death at the graveyard- the third in the family.  Somewhere the mouths that spread rumours about the ghosts were  getting an unacknowledged confirmation from the neighbourhood. An year’s happy married life had not been enough for a young woman of  thirty to continue treading the  path of life with the memories  of the man who had quietly sneaked into her orphaned life . A messiah  of love and  adorations.  Compassion incarnate!  Cheryl    shuddered for a while at the chain of endless thoughts that kept on spinning out of her wind.  A big branch of tree fell on the ground. It  shook herself  and she  settled her eyes on the  dubious  duo  who seemed to be  leaving  the garden.
After Tahan’s death, the small white gate was hardly unlocked.  Left all alone to herself in the  sprawling house,  Cheryl  kept staring for long hours at the provocative sea that  fuelled  her rage,  more than  the grief.  Had it not been for Mother Maria’s  soothing words,  Cheryl would never  have come out of  the misery. It was she who compelled her to start   attending  the six o’clock  morning mass. at St. Joseph’s Church This was  followed by an hour’s walk at the  D’Monte Park. On her way back home, a rose at Tahan’s grave was the ritual she had never missed in all these three years.
Quite intermittently, Sultan would send her bouquets of flowers but mostly avoided meeting or visiting her.  A couple of times, he offered her to pay a huge price for Silas’ Cottage but  both the proposals were instantly rejected by her.  

There was no will, but of course  a way- a legal way - that brought a few close relatives of Tahan together  -the ones  whom Cheryl had  never ever   heard of  even when Tahan was alive. The stake was big. The claimants many. Five, to be precise,   seeking to  exercise their  rights  on the  half-a –billion-worth  Silas’ Cottage.
Slowly and gradually, she started connecting the sequence of events. Were the deaths  pure coincidences or murders?  Her frequent visits to the  local police stations for inquiring about  the investigation details of Tahan’s  death were fruitless but she continued doing so, with a faint hope germinating  at the start of each new day. 
“ Is  that Sultan? Are  the claimants conspiring against me ? Am I the next on their cards?”  She did not know  the answer.  She did not know whom to trust. She did not know where to go for help. All she could think about was she needed protection, a solid protection.
“ I can’t walk any more.  Nor  can  I sit here. They must have left by now,” she  mumbled to herself and started loitering around.   She knew what it would be like once she left the garden with the rose in her hand.   Both  of them would continue staggering further and as soon as  they would reach the graveyard gate,   one of them, having    hustled  the other into the graveyard,  would continue  walking  towards the road to the  Pali   Street.  “Let it be. I am no longer afraid of anything, anyone.    What more could have been  more  fearful in my life but Tahan’s death……” She readjusted  the  straps of her handbag on her left shoulder  and  started walking towards the gate. She realised the rains had not yet stopped   but had slowed down into a drizzle.

For more than a couple of days, she had been planning  to visit the Helsey’s  Super Market but was too overworked to devote time for the chore.  It was  long overdue.  But there had been  a more important task to be  finished.  Last Sunday,   she picked up  her car keys and  hand bag,  and reached  the  hospital stockroom whose in-charge she was  but on second thought,   turned around and trudged through the  muddy  parking lot.

She had only once  been to the  Pali Gaothan Market  before.  Walking in the small,  squalid  street filled  with the ankle deep  muddy waters flowing down, she  tried to locate the shop from where,  long back in an emergency,   she had   bought  some  medicines.  The strong smell of garlic and fish  made the early  evening more fetid. She pushed her  glares over her hair and wrapped the stole around her nose.  The women, mostly clad in  the  faded cotton  gowns with their chests covered with  crumpled stoles,  jostled against the other pedestrians. Cheryl realised they were   giving  her queer looks. She wadded through the crowd and reached the chemist’s shop. But the shop  adjacent  to it, was closed. She was perplexed. A man  standing  in front of the closed shutter  looked quizzically at her. He was more perplexed when he learnt that she had been looking out for the  Fresh Chick  Halal Centre. Having taken the necessary directions from him, she finally reached the spot.
The small shop was heavily crowded. Men, women, eunuchs and roosters- all of them looking  pale, as if struck by the horrors  of blood, death and purgatory. On the other side of the wooden counter, there  were  four men, busy cutting large chunks of meat into smaller ones, weighing, packing and shouting numbers in a  jargoned  language that the men at  the bill counter easily registered. A black fat woman who got a push from the back huddled up close to her making her almost fall  right on the counter. Cheryl realised her fingers were on a big sharpened knife; without losing a  second, she picked it up and slid it in her bag.  Her mission was accomplished. When she rose, the man at the counter was politely asking her whether she was alright. She  tilted her head slightly and asked for half a kilogram of pork. Having paid the bill, she drove the car back home.       
She knew,  only one of them,  was now  following her into the graveyard. As she came closer to Tahan’s grave, she could hear the footsteps behind. “Huh! Damn it. Fear, eh? No more. NEVER, ” she muttered  with a slur and looked helplessly in the direction  where the undertaker lived in a small, cemented hut. But he was seen nowhere.

Before she could turn around and shove it away, she was thrown aback by the big animal.  The Caucasian Ovcharka had tightened its grip around her delicate body and  had been fiercely barking. Her heart was sinking and her breath choking. The animal was neither scratching  nor hurting her but was just holding her tightly. But  she was  profusely panting.  For a fraction of a jiffy, she found herself to be dying. But  a  sharp prick from her handbag revived her losing courage. She slipped  her hand into the bag and took out the  shining knife. Without wasting a moment, she thrust it fiercely  into the body of the dog.

Thwack! A fading whimper and it was all over.
 The big  body  of the dog plopped into a pool of blood. The job was done.  She could see the Ovcharka  taking its last breath.

 It had stopped raining but the mugginess in the air spurred  in her a strong craving  for a cold beverage.  Her lips were thirsty  and her throat dry.  A  silver LED sign board flashed across  her mind - “OPEN :7.00 AM TO 12.00 AM.” Her  Victorinox - Swiss Army was moving  fast, veering  the  quarter -to- seven posture.  Less than  even three furlongs,  the coffee shop    was just around the corner nudging the  Pali Street.   

Having ordered for a large Iced  Coffee Mocha, she took the seat near the window at the Café Bianca.  Her hand unconsciously touched  the sticky smoothness of the knife hidden in her handbag.
Waiting for the coffee, she kept staring numbly outside the French window for quite sometime.  As the coffee-shaker lay indiscreetly whirring  on the side of the counter,  her mind stirred  cautiously,  sensing something uncanny. 
And it  turned up.

 Across  the French window, she saw the man - the one with the hair coloured as black as goal and beard as white as the rough  snow- entering the Cafe gate. He was wearing   a sinister look on his  cockeyed  face.  A series of reflexes took her over : a quick  look at the handbag;  the adrenaline dump;  and the slipping off her marriage ring. The low clink  whisked the myelin as her brain sent her waves in a jiffy of a second. Her lips quivered, “What now? Does he know I ‘ve killed the dog?” And what exactly is he doing here?” She rushed to the washroom and stayed there for more than a quarter of an hour. From the slit of  the hinges of the door, she saw him holding a take-away parcel and walking out of the Café. 

Half an hour later, she was standing at  the billing counter. The transaction-slip holder had still not received more inmates than a couple of them.  Her large, petrified eyes  fell on the last slip that read an unknown yet, somewhat  familiar name  -Robert  Pedro. A visiting card lay next to the holder. It read :
Robert Pedro -Dog- Trainer.

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