Saturday, 15 August 2020

Anitha Chakravarthy, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

ONE LAST TIME

The misty morning had just begun. The sun seemed to have taken a small vacation and the dark cloud had set in. Morning dawned late and the night began early. The heater was out of the cupboard and stood proudly on the ivory table placed in the centre of the hall. Mother would never allow anything to be placed on that table. Grandfather had gifted it on the eve of her wedding night. She allowed it to be kept in the hall only after continuous persuasion of grandmother. However with one condition, that nothing else would be allowed to be placed on it. This differed when the cold season began. The heater dictated rules in the cold months.

The winds would be dry in the initial days, but with the severity of the chill, the days would get worse with cold winds roaring. The windows would never be opened and the murky odour would always emanate even after mother lighted incense sticks. The clothes would never dry on time and we would wear sweaters knit by grandmother. Luckily for us, she would knit at least two each every year thus making it possible to have a huge collection in the closet.

Ting… tong… ting… tong, rang the doorbell. The cold winter night had intensified making it impossible to get out of bed. I wondered who could have rung the bell at this hour of the morning. Even though the clock showed 8, it was merely impossible to get out of the house in the cold chill.

I waddled out of my bed spread like a duck and shivered with every step. I opened the front door. “Ahhh.. Ahhhh … save me.. Help me…it’s a bear… a polar bear”…My mother got out of bed at once and ran towards the door. Uncle Chacko was calming me down; he was trying to quiet me. My shrill cry had woken up the entire household. The street dogs were at once at the gate watching my stupidity. Uncle Chacko entered the house. The bear suit he wore was a double protection from the cold; the coat was long and made of the fur of polar bear.

Uncle Chacko couldn’t stop laughing at my foolishness. He bought that coat on his last trip from Ukraine. He was my father’s close friend and they worked in the army together. After father’s demise, uncle had been a guardian to us. He catered to all our needs and even made father’s pension reach us on time.

Mother offered him tea. He asked me about our tea estate. I was often helping mother looking after it. The yield we got out of it helped us pay up all the bills. Father had purchased it at a fairly low price and cultivated tea. Evenings would be visiting the tea estate, checking for the fence line, looking for damages, invasion of the wild animals and to turn on the electric motors. The belt that I lived in, cultivated tea and eucalyptus. We had a license to grow eucalyptus tree in our estate, but with the demise of father, mother tried to ease and not take too much burden.

Father’s memories were still afresh and mother would sometimes be lost in his thoughts, she would often have a tear or two thinking of him. But he had prepared her well. Since he was in the army, he would often tell her, his life was always at stake. When she saw him coming back alive each year during the vacation, it was a bonus. That bonus was not too short and lasted for eighteen years. Uncle Chacko was a senior man in the army and was one of the biggest inspirations for father to join the army.

Uncle Chacko was a brave man. He had lost both his young sons to the Kargil war, yet he took so much pride that his sons had died for the country. He lived alone in the countryside and enjoyed his life serving the orphanage kids with daily lessons.

He had inspired many children in the orphanage to join the Indian army. Karma Kumte had joined the Navy and had brought a lot of pride to our town.

At a distance, I saw Luna running towards me. She was the postman’s daughter. We hardly received any letters except father sending us one every month when he was in the army. He would mandatorily write one for mother, which he would slip into a yellow cover, one for me and a small note for granny. Then it would be my job to read granny’s to her. Mother would never share what father wrote to her. Grandmother would usually get the same verses from father.

Ma, “I hope your well. The Siachen glacier is freezing and since I am posted here for 8 months in a year, I often catch a cold. I have been drinking your herbal powder in hot water every day. I hope everyone is taking care of you. I will visit you by the end of this year. Take care”.

Granny would keep it close to her heart and chant a small prayer for father’s safety. My letters would be on various topics- his treks, books, tourists, local people, his new friends and his boss. I would keep it safe in the wooden Almira and wait until the next one came. Mother would sneak out to the balcony and read the love letter for long. She would preserve them in her ivory box, again gifted by her father when she conceived.

“Luna baby, don’t run, the soil is damp and you may fall”. She smiled at my words and handed me an envelope with my address on it. I had no clue who could have sent it. She said, sister,” My father told me to give this to you”. He fell down from the stairs yesterday and broke his leg.

The envelope cover read,

To my dear Tara,

#41, Church Gate Street,

Mussoorie

My heart started thudding, I had a strong feeling that it was from my father. But after a year of his demise, how could I have possibly got a letter.

Tears rolled down my cheek like a tiny water fall, as I read it.

“Your father visited me last month; he wishes to tell you that he’s always watching out for you. I know it’s hard to believe. The army man wants to speak to you one last time. Can you come and meet me?”

Regards Paulo,

#3, Altuis street, Near Pastor’s church, Mussoorie.

I knelt down, shivering unable to recover from the words written on the letter. I didn’t know how much of it all to believe. Telling mother about this would only panic her more. There was only one way out of this, telling Uncle Chacko about the letter. If it was true I could at least feel happy to hear from father, however if it turned out to be a hoax, I wouldn’t be too surprised because I never believed in the world after death.

I stood like a lone warrior with one last arrow in my quiver; “Uncle Chacko”.

Uncle Chacko was living in the Army colony street, approximately three miles from my house. Since it was highlands, the rain water wouldn’t be stagnating and flowed down to the plains which was bordered by Church Gate Street. We had often struggled with floods, living on the terrace for days in battery operated torch light. However now, the affordability quotient had made us permanent residents of the plains.

Uncle Chacko was busy tending to his plants, he was trimming the bushes. “Hi Uncle, I just came to see you”, I said. He was very surprised to see me out of the house at this time and in the chill. He was happy to receive me and immediately greeted me in. “Tara darling, sit here on this couch, that’s from grandfather, he loved it and before Ramos died he made a good deal of it with me”. I sat rather uncomfortably on it. Uncle got us both tea. “Very comfortable couch ha?” said he, “Of course, Ramos made a deal out of it before dying. I needed the couch and he needed the money, poor old guy, sold it to me for just fifteen bucks” and he started laughing at his brave act.

I finished the tea and placed the cup on the table. “I want to show you my new plant collection”, said uncle. I walked with him to his garden, he started explaining about his new flowering Anthuriums, blooming peace Lillie’s and repotting ficus. Uncle, I interrupted him, “I needed to speak to you and handed the letter over to him”. The happiness of lilies and anthuriams had vanished from his face.

He placed a bottle of whiskey on the table and poured it into his glass. “Care to take a sip darling?” I frowned, “Uncle, I do not know if it’s a hoax but I sure want to try this. Can we go see him tomorrow? What if father really came back?”

He was scratching his beard, took the last sip, hesitatingly poured another, drank again, drank again and drank again. Uncle, Uncle you have to stop. I am serious. I’ll go myself. “You can drink till you die”. I saw him weeping, his eyes red with tears.

“Tara, I will walk you to your house”. As we started, he said, “I can’t believe, Sam’s back. Good man he was. I miss him a lot. I wish to speak to him one last time too. I want to ask him why he stepped on the bomb fence. Why did he leave me? I thought he would be my only son, when Peter and Krit died. He promised to take care of me in my old age. Your father left me with all his unfulfilled promises”.

“Be ready tomorrow, I’ll be in your house at 8:00 am sharp”.

Altuis street housed old residents of the town. They had lived for generations and the legacy of joint families was dominating there. Since the Pastor’s church was situated close by, Sunday sermons were full and every week one family volunteered in providing lunch.

House number 3 was a huge Victorian, the building appeared almost half devastated, like as if it was on fire. The white paint had worn out very long ago, making it look like no one ever lived there for many long years. We looked at each other and uncle remarked, “You seriously want to enter this house?” I rang the doorbell twice and no one answered. Uncle sat at the front porch with his hand on his chin. I rang the bell again and this time a tall man in his sixties came storming out with a gun from his backyard yelling curse words.

Uncle stood up at once, held his hand hard and threw him to the floor. “Ah, you can try messing with Ex-army”.

“Who the hell are you two?” asked the man shivering and recovering from the fall. I spoke softly, “Tara”,

“Who Tara, the army, the letter, the father, the fence, bombing, death”, he began to randomly blabber these words. “Please come in, I have been waiting for you”. He held my hand tightly and took me in.

Uncle Chacko walked behind us.

The inside of the house looked like an old monument with many unused articles, numerous cobwebs and murky odour of the wet shoes. I closed my nose with the napkin I carried and uncle Chacko looked at me with a frown.

Mr Paulo, do you live alone here? He took out his cigar lighted it and replied, “Yes, ever since the fire burnt them all up”. “Who all?” questioned uncle with his gruff voice. “Mm, my family, my wife, my sons, our dogs and cats. I wish, I burnt with them too”.

“Oh, I am sorr...” Before I could complete my statement, he said, “Your father came to me for help, he wants to speak to you”. Mr Paulo, how do you do this? I mean, do you see them?

Paulo spread a bed sheet on the glass table. “I don’t believe in this stuff, but I took to drugs after my family left me behind. I learnt dark magic. I first contacted my dead wife, she came in and opened this portal for me. Nowadays many spirits from the other world seek my help. I try to help as many as I can, but it’s not always successful, many don’t believe in what I do”.

“I don’t believe too, Paulo, but I came here for my little baby girl”, remarked uncle.

“You believe or not believe sir, not my business; I will do what they tell me to. You may or not follow”. The lights were dim. He placed sheets of paper on the table. He held the pen tightly and said, “Army man, your daughter has come and along with her is a fat irritating man, who just knocked me down, almost breaking my bones, say something if you wish, I don’t have the whole day for you”.

The pen started moving, the speed was so fast and rampant that I could see him breathe fast, I tried to peep but the letters moved fast, papers were getting filled, and finally the pen nib broke. Paulo sat leaning on the chair breathing fast. I gave him water from the pot kept on the table top beside him.

He wiped his sweat off and gave me the pages.

“My dear Tara,

I thought you would never come. I live in the spirit world, this space is peaceful and I feel very happy. I think this is heaven. But I am not sure, but dad is happy. I watch you almost every day, especially those days you miss me more. But you cannot notice me because this space I live in is not for ordinary living people. I also see Papa Chacko sitting beside you. He’s always caring for you. I cannot thank him enough. Papa, Peter and Krit live here too. I watch out for them every day. They are very safe with me. Since they cannot communicate with you, they said, “They are happy and don’t want you to be sad”. They too watch you often. They hid your key the other day showing you their presence, but you were too impatient to notice.

Tara, believe me, I saw you in the funeral, my body was half burnt and the left over was cold and pale, it rained so badly, you held the black umbrella and stood in the corner. That drop of tear, I tried to wipe off your cheek, but my form didn’t permit. I could feel your pain. I even tried entering my body again and again but in vain. I heard the priest chant prayers and spray holy water on my body. Mother cried inconsolably, granny lost consciousness. Papa Chacko grieved in silence. Yes, I didn’t fulfil his promise, I didn’t live to be a good son, but his sons are safe with me here. I watch him too sometimes. He hasn’t stopped his drinking habit. He often grieves in silence.

Last week, you took out the watch you had bought for me as a surprise. Your eyes welled up with the thought that, you could never give me. You put it back into the wooden chest and locked it. You never spoke to anyone after that. I want you to be very brave and take care of the two beautiful women who took such care of your dad till the last. Be strong, think of me when you have a problem, I will drive down the solution”.

“Bonjour daddy, we are fine and happy. You stop drinking and be happy. “Kuaile he nianqing”-Love- Krit”

“I know, you and mother are struggling to make ends meet. Even though you’re paying bills without any debt, savings is also important. I left a property paper of a house, that I purchased in highlands for you in the aluminium chest. Mother doesn’t know about it. I thought of gifting it to you when you get married, but now, it’s time for you to move to the new bungalow and be comfortable.

I also left some money in the bank as a future saving in case of my death. The papers are in the chest too. Mother will need that money. Even though, I couldn’t live long enough to take care of you like a princess, I made sure you get everything you want. All I need in return is your happiness.

FYI: I took the watch with me.

Love – Daddy”

I kept the paper on my chest and began weeping harder and louder. The whole house resonated to my cry. Uncle Chacko patted on my back and left me to myself. I felt better after weeping. I folded the letter, walked towards Paulo and said, “Thank you so much, I owe you a lot”. He said mm, “Daddy’s little girl, well, he says you can come back anytime when you have a problem, he will respond to you”.

We walked out barely talking to each other. As I reached my house, I looked at uncle Chacko, he smiled and said “Kuaile he nianqing”. In Chinese, it means stay happy and young, Krit said this to me when he spoke to me “One last time”.

I ran to my room and opened the wooden chest: The watch was missing.

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