Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018 Longlist, Debjeet Mukherjee

The Farewell

The new waiter at the local café approached Mrs. Sharma and evidently fumbled before asking her, “Would you like some tea or coffee, madam?”
But before she could reply, the head-waiter rushed in, scolded his new junior counterpart, and in an apologetic tone, said to Mrs. Sharma, “I am very sorry madam, he is new here. I would bring your usual order in a minute. Please excuse him.”
“It’s okay,” replied Mrs. Sharma, in an uninterested tone.

After about two minutes, the new waiter brought in a hot cup of lemon tea with some fresh toast and ruskits. The table was well served by him and he slowly retreated in the background after serving, leaving the middle-aged Mrs. Sharma at her own peace and solitude. The evening sun fell on the blue curtains of the café and the seats gradually started getting filled up by many more employed people like Mrs. Sharma. Mrs. Sharma was a fifty year old working mother in a private firm. Her only boy, Asish, was a brilliant engineer – and her husband was a reputed colonel posted at Ladakh in Kashmir. They occasionally video called each other via Skype in order to maintain a decent marriage at the autumn of their lives.

The evening started to get cloudy. Asish was at a pool party with his friends. It was rather kind of a farewell party. After years of hard work, schooling, and just two years of service, Asish had finally managed to land upon his dream job and was headed for USA that night. So a pool party was inevitable for him.
Mrs. Sharma wanted to spend some time with her son. But events had not quite worked out the way she wanted as a mom, especially in the upbringing of her only son. A series of arguments during teenage years made Asish promise to himself that he was going out of this country as soon as he lands a job, just so he could move far away from his relatives and mom. Since then the mother-son conversations had not really worked out, resulting in the evening when the son is at a pool party and the sad mom at the local café on the day of the son’s departure.

However, the engulfing sadness of Mrs. Sharma was partly due to the events mentioned above and mostly due to the fact that Asish did not know how to cook. A key element missed out in the upbringing of Asish, lamented Mrs. Sharma, as in today’s world every individual should learn how to cook in order to survive alone in any part of the world. The processed food that he will be buying and eating from restaurants and outlets would, at some point of time, have an effect on his health, which of course, was a matter of great concern for Mrs. Sharma.

Rain started to fall. The pool party was ruined. Asish and his friends had to pack up an hour before their actual party time was over. So Asish headed for home in a grim face. The drawing room was dark and there was no one to offer him a glass of glucose. He had to make his own. After getting refreshed, Asish sat on the couch and turned on the TV. The cable operators had turned off the signal before heavy rain and lightning could damage their profits. So Asish started packing up for his flight. He planned to start off early, as according to his judgment, it was wise waiting at the airport than staying at home with mom.

A few heavy drops on the tin roof of the café made Mrs. Sharma come out of her trance. She had evidently spent too much time at the Café that evening. The sun had set a long time back and the chances of the weather getting worse were pretty high. The lemon tea cup was empty and for the first time, two ruskits lay on the plate. Mrs. Sharma made a mistake conjugating the biscuits with tea. So she hurriedly ate them up dry and quickly made out of the café after paying her bill. She never tipped.

Asish was getting impatient for his mom’s arrival. He planned to move straight out of the house as soon as his mom returned. Then he would head straight for the airport. He started to wonder how he would say goodbye to his mom. Just then, his father called him on Skype. Asish had good terms with the colonel, probably because he remained home for only one month each year. The dad and son had a good formal talk and the colonel gave a good farewell lecture. Out of the entire three minutes video call, there was a time when the colonel mentioned Asish to take away a small coffee making machine to the USA if he so desired. The colonel and his wife were married for almost thirty years. On their first wedding anniversary he had gifted his wife that coffee making machine but unfortunately Mrs. Sharma did not have a liking for coffee. So it lay in the store room for eternity.
Asish had no intention to increase his luggage. He, however, felt an urge to bring out the device from eternal banishment. He felt strange looking at the dusty box. Dad had made a small heart in one corner of the box within which his mom had signed. He smiled at the thought of his parents romancing. Events had not quite worked out for Asish either, but he was still a good lad at heart. So he decided to make his mom a cup of coffee before he left, and prove for at least once that he too can actually get around in the kitchen. So for the next thirty minutes he made a mess of the kitchen but finally managed to prepare some coffee. He kept it in a kettle inside the kitchen and started waiting for his mom.

Mrs. Sharma always carried an umbrella. She quickened her pace home, through the park just outside the café. Young moms all around were busy putting their playful children inside raincoats and departing early. There was a time when Mrs. Sharma too brought Asish there to play. But that was a long time ago. The atmosphere was different then. She was surprised when she found that her son was back before her.

“So, how was your party?” she asked her son, who was seated on the couch playing games in the phone.
“It was good,” came a distant reply.

Mrs. Sharma went to her room, and about fifteen minutes later came out after freshening herself up. She usually took an hour to get refreshed, but that moment was special. Her son would be moving to the USA. He was happy. So Mrs. Sharma was happy too, except for some minor thoughts about his survival strategy. She knew that after she returned home, her son would not wait long. So she quickly came to the drawing room and experienced the surprise of her life. Never in a thousand years did she imagine what she was seeing at the moment.
Asish still lay on the couch, but with a dry smile, and in front of him was a kettle filled with hot coffee and two cups. He had also managed to put the wedding anniversary box on display at one side and a small card with the initials “Love U Mom” on the other.

“Did you prepare that coffee for me on your own?” asked a puzzled Mrs. Sharma.
“Yes mom. Come have it” replied Asish as he poured some into one cup.
The mom and son sipped their coffee quietly. It was strange. They never had anything together for many years and neither knew what to say. Suddenly two drops of tears started rolling down Mrs. Sharma’s cheek. Asish got tense (surprisingly not angry) and said in a soft voice, “Hey mom. Take it easy. Don’t cry please. I’m not going for eternity. I’ll come pay a visit when I get time. Just please don’t cry about it.”

Mrs. Sharma wiped off her tears quickly and then said in a sobbing voice, “Do take good care of you son. Call me sometimes if you feel. And do learn how to cook there. I want you to stay well always.”
“Yeah mom, I will learn it. Don’t worry,” replied Asish who finished his coffee, got up, went to his room and was ready in a minute. He came out with his small American Tourister suitcase and laptop bag and gave his mother a hug.
Mrs. Sharma lamented, “I wish our time had spent well for the past few years. No matter where and what you are son, I always love you. I wish time had not shown its fury and wrath upon us.”
Asish paused for a minute, and slowly spoke, “I wish I could make more coffee for you.”
Mrs. Sharma was taken aback for a while.
“But I can’t,” added Asish as he walked out of the house with a smile.

Cleaning the kitchen was an easy task for Mrs. Sharma the next morning, because she was very happy. Her son had called her halfway through his journey whilst the plane was refueling at Berlin and had also spoken to her for thirteen minutes! The evening was equally bright with a clear sky and Mrs. Sharma tried to compare the blue café curtains with the sky – which one was brighter God knows! Asish had video called his mom from his new apartment while she was at the Café, and had also shown her the new cookbook that he had purchased the moment he landed USA. Mrs. Sharma tipped for the first time that evening throughout her entire career as a regular customer in the local Café, and was very cheerful when she left. But that was not the only mystery to the Café waiters. What was more surprising to them was the fact that Mrs. Sharma always ordered coffee from that day onwards!

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