I tried to take out as many sticks as I possibly could from the matchbox in my uncontrolled enthusiasm induced clumsiness; but of no avail. The matchbox was new; full of sticks, it was impossible to hold together too many sticks with the fingers, even if they could be held together it was impossible to get them out. Yet I managed to get out four sticks from the first jerk and placed them on the palm outstretched towards me; then to get a couple of more I placed my fingers on the sticks, just then the girl said, “It’s enough, I don’t need any more, thank you so much.”
“Take a couple of more, you might need it”, I said and with equal promptness tried to get some more sticks from the matchbox; but exceeding my promptness the girl spoke out, “No-no, I don’t need any more”, then dividing the four sticks on her left palm she said, “These two for now; these two for the morning. In the morning I will go to the store anyway, and after buying the matchbox I will return your matchsticks. I am really grateful.” After saying that the girl smiled in a way that seemed to me just as humble and peaceful as the poor matchsticks; then she said, “Good night”.
“Good night”, I said. Guessing from the sound of the shoes I realised, after going a little ahead in the corridor the girl went up climbing the stairs on the left. I just needed to take one step ahead outside my door to look at her go from behind; after the sound of the shoes died down I found me standing frozen there, without any movement.
Gently I pushed the matchbox shut and shut the door of the room even more gently.
So she will return the matchsticks! Is this some kind of a joke? Well one never knows, from whatever I have seen going on in here, she might do it. I have come out of a slightly different social environment of our country. Relying on a phrase like, “Can you help me out this time, I will pay you back later”__ I had many monetary dealings with my friends, be it on the tea stall, the ticket counter of the cinema hall, the football game, the exhibition etc; nobody seem to remember theses dealings afterwards, neither me nor my friends. Once upon a time there was a man who happened to hold a job where his salary was one hundred and eighty two rupees. He received one hundred and eighty rupees as his first month’s pay. The cashier softly smiled looking at him,__ he did not have the change of two rupees to give the other man the rest of his due salary. Months went by after that but the soft smile on the cashier’s lips remained. Even the man duly kept receiving his one hundred and eighty rupees. Once there was a cut of two rupees from everybody’s salary in the office as a contribution to the upcoming ritual of Saraswati puja, Saraswati the Hindu goddess of truth and learning. On that particular month the man got one hundred and seventy eight rupees! He did not protest.
When it comes to keeping accounts I am that kind of a man.
But here things are different. If a friend takes a postal stamp worth one pence from me, he will return me a pence. Not only that, sometimes they ask, “Should I give you the money or buy the ticket for you.” Meaning if I was willing to let go off the value of my physical labour of going to the post office to buy the ticket? If I am not then he will buy me a ticket later. I find myself speechless with surprise. I don’t remember when I paid five pence for his ticket on the bus to Victoria station, he himself reminds me while returning the pennies. It is my money, returned to me, but I hesitate to take it as if I it is someone else’s lost money; it also seems like some extra money coming out of nowhere.
I used to think at first that since I was a newly acquainted foreigner, they were keeping the accounts straight with me. But I realised I was wrong; they call each other an idiot in every other line, but they keep the scores right, even the scores of calling each other an idiot. Even I did not remain a new acquaintance forever. The friends I am talking about, all of them were of pure British breed, most of them were not merely members of the conservative party but also conservative in their personal life. Our intimacy grew to the extent where I can argue with them about very unpleasant incidents like Jallianwala Bagh, or The Black Hole Tragedy; I would tell them about the removal of the horse riding statues of Outram Hastings from the streets of Calcutta, they would not spare a single opportunity for asking me about things like__if it was true or not that Indian people watch cricket or football matches from outside the stadium with the help of rope tricks, without paying tickets; but still they keep the scores right. If somebody happened to take a cigarette from my packet, then he would take the next opportunity to offer me his own packet,– “have one”.
And if this is the typical example of keeping score, then the girl might just return the matchsticks. But whatever it may be, I felt good after giving her the matchsticks. After so many days the house felt like it was indeed inhabited by humans. It has been so many days and yet I don’t have a clue whether the person living in the adjacent room to mine is a padre or a burglar. Many a mornings in the veranda of the bathroom I have stumbled on the woman I hear giggling in there; wearing a sleeping gown with floral print, a head full of curly white hair which looked like a forest, with her little eyes shrinking from the surrounding muscles, and a long cigarette holder in her mouth holding a burning cigarette. I tried greeting her with a ‘good morning’ in my fresh and calm morning voice on many occasions; but could not find any enthusiasm in her reply which seemed feudally calculated and barely audible. Not only her, I have greeted countless people ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ in the long corridor of this gigantic house; lost count of how many different kind of pronunciation I have heard of these four words; and the house keeper once told me though there is a register to keep the record of the people all over the world coming to and going from the seventy rooms in this house, he has no idea about how many that will be. And the idea I gathered after meeting people all over the world in this corridor is that it is as if they have come to London learning only four English words and they will learn some more before they return. I don’t seem to think twice before uttering those wretched ‘good morning’s and ‘good evening’s, but I really feel annoyed thinking about it afterwards. I feel like grabbing someone and greeting him a thousand ‘good morning’ at a stretch, and in return urge him to ask me__ who else is there in your home?
It will come to nothing. Mind your own business. Who are there in my home is my own business. Nobody needs to know that.
At last, just now a girl knocked on the door and went away with four matchsticks. Though the incident was not as cordial as asking a neighbour for a cup of milk from the backdoor because there are guests to be entertained who came at an inconvenient time, I had a similar feeling.
The feeling lingered for a couple of days, especially since the girl promised to return the sticks it kept me wondering, will she really return those? But slowly I forgot about it. If she would have borrowed a pound or so not only I wouldn’t have forget about it, instead I would have asked the house keeper to monitor her activity.
But nobody came to return the matchsticks; I never saw the girl again. She might have promised me keeping in mind the general custom of civility, and forgot. I did not come across her in the corridor, lift or stairs to remind her about it. It is not as if she is keeping away from me to avoid returning the sticks, because I saw her only once before this incident. It was a Saturday. I was I the room the whole morning. Mrs. Louise, the cleaner came at about nine thirty to tidy the room. Generally if the occupant of the room is around the cleaners find it uncomfortable to go about their job. But I was not well dressed to go out of the room. So to make her comfortable to do her job; and especially to avoid a situation where both of us are inside a locked room__ I opened the door completely; and started chit chatting with Mrs. Louise leaning against a wall. Then I saw a girl suddenly stopping in front of the door. I instantly understood the girl was passing through the corridor to go somewhere, but stopped seeing the door of my room open.
Not acknowledging my presence at first the girl asked Mrs. Louise, “Mrs. Louise, do you have a six pence coin?”
The girl was holding some one pence coins on her palm, certainly six and was making a clinging sound. I got it that she ran out of gas in her room; and wants a six pence coin to put in the machine. Mrs. Louise replied with a sympathetic tone, “Oh! I am sorry; I left my coat in the house keeper’s office.”
The girl was a little disappointed and looked around here and there before setting her eyes on me and repeated the same phrase with a calm requesting look.
Me, the same clumsiness and the same uncontrollable ecstasy. I grabbed a fistful of coins from the pockets of my overcoat, closely examined the coins turning them around with my fingers; the six pence coin is really tiny, it can be hiding under a half a pence coin, I spread the coins over my table. It was not there. Within one minute I ransacked the seventeen-eighteen pockets hanging in my wardrobe. What else would you name a wretched luck! I did not feel like looking at the girl’s face, on top of that I did not converse with her directly; so I blurted out, “Sorry Mrs. Louise, I don’t have any…”
The girl looked around, may be hoping for a couple of other open doors; and left. I was intrigued to ask Mrs. Louise the girl’s room number, her name etc. I did not. Mrs. Louise herself is a twenty seven- twenty eight year old jolly woman; sometimes pointing towards a letter on my table she says with a mysterious smile, “Letter dipped in honey!” I release a long sigh and say, “I wish I could have said yes to that Mrs. Louise, but this is my friend’s letter; asking for the prospectus and application form for Social Science from the Regents Polytechnic here.” If I ask this woman about the girl, she might give me a stern look and say, “Hold on there, it seems I have to keep an eye on you.”
I saw the girl for the first time that day, and she also must have come to know on that very day that I stay in this room. Then when she had to come to me looking for the match sticks I realised, even she does not have much idea about who lives behind the closed doors of the seventy rooms in this house.
And many days passed after she took the matchsticks from me; she must have forgotten my room number by now. But one day I heard someone knocking at the door at ten forty five in the night. Usually the alarm clock is kept at a distance from my bed. Suddenly I had a doubt and looked carefully at the clock—what if it is eight fifty five only and I am misreading the clock hands! But no, it was forty five minutes past ten. My friends can’t come to visit me at night after ten o’clock. The main gate from outside closes down at ten o’clock, there is no way of calling me from outside by pressing the calling bell. So I could not figure out who was knocking at the door. I was lying straight on my bed with a pile of blankets covering myself till my neck, and was reading an exhaustingly annoying book. The lingering cold weather of London’s winter; I was holding the book erect over my chest stretching my hands from under the pile of blankets; I did not even turn the pages for the fear of displacing my hands from under the blankets and exposing them to the cold, so before I got out of bed just to be sure I waited listening carefully to the knocking,– it might be some nearby door and not mine. Again the tuck-tuck-tuck.
I jumped up. Slipped into my sleeping gown quickly and opened the door. The girl. “Hello”- the word escaped my mouth involuntarily.
“Hello”, the girl spoke in a very low voice, “I am really mortified to bother you like this so late at night. You must have wanted to sleep”.
“No, no, I am not at all bothered”- I started arranging my hair with my hands after saying. My hair was in a total mess after the long fight with the pillow since nine o’clock, it was as if I looked into a mirror when I stood in front of the girl.
“So tell me, how may I help you?”, I asked politely as was the custom.
“Do you happened to have soap with you?”, she asked in a reluctant hesitating voice.
“Soap!” even if I have heard it clearly I said, “I beg your pardon?”
“Soap powder for washing clothes; Daz, Omo or Surf”, the girl explained with examples.
“Oh sure I have, I have Daz”__ I said with enthusiasm.
The minute she uttered the words _“Can you give me some?”, I dashed to the other end of the room and within a second presented myself in front of her with the packet of soap powder. She hesitated a little and said, “Give me the whole packet; I will buy you a new one tomorrow.”
“Please take it. But I don’t know how much is left in the packet; I will be happy if it is of your use. There is no need of buying me a new one, don’t worry about returning this much also.” I spoke out these lines just like the agent of new tea company who is distributing their stuff for free.
“No, no”, said the girl, “You have helped me earlier also; certainly I will return your stuff tomorrow.” After that expressing her sadness for getting me out of bed, her delight at my kindness and her thankfulness for the soap powder, the girl left wishing that I spent a safe and good night. She didn’t wear shoes today; and left with the flapping sound of her red slippers.
It dawned on me suddenly only after she left that all this while we were chatting, she was standing outside the half opened door and I was inside. Tch tch tch, it was very uncourteous of me. At least I should have tried asking her, “Come in please!” I made her stand outside the door and talked!
I believe sudden burst of excitement make people act abnormal, and most probably uncourteous people also experience excitement. Whatever happened; happened already, no use thinking it over now. If I happen to meet her again someday I have say, “You were in a hurry that night, so did not get a chance to invite you inside, please don’t mind.” Certainly she will say, “Oh, it’s alright.”
But I was more surprised thinking over the soap business. Exchanging trivial miscellanies, and bonus chit chats, a little informality must be appreciated in London. We have our own abundant history of exchanging daily miscellanies and informality. But that history has a limit. There is loose conventional boundary around what we can ask from our neighbours. The clothing iron, the long machete to clean up the backyard grass, the ladder to climb up to the roof, the occasional tangy mangos for the daughter in law who crave for it after her afternoon nap, the ‘sugar and tea’ borrowing for a sticky situation, at the most, “Forgot to get lemon from the market yesterday, ‘He’ can’t take his meal of rice without those, go on ask aunty if she has any”. That does not mean somebody will go and say, “Ma is getting ready for the puja celebrations, she asked for a pair of shoes”, if someone does it’s an extreme case in point. In the house where I couldn’t even utter a single word for the sake of informality, to lend a thing like soap powder in that very house felt like an extreme case in point to me. I understand the importance of a thing like matchsticks and the problems attached to its absence; if it is not there it’s simply not there, and if the closed sign happened to hang in front of the stores after seven o’clock in the evening then there is no other place to buy the matchbox except in the pubs. And there is no greater trouble there than to dress up as neatly as a possible candidate for an interview just to go to the pub which was one yard away. But soap powder! No matter how hard you wring your clothes dry after washing it at eleven o’clock in the night, it will never be dry enough for you to wear it in the morning and I guess you said you will go to the store in the morning!
According to my old theory, first the initial introduction, slowly growing friendship, after that close intimacy; at last may be the exchange of little miscellanies, a lemon etc. But I have known the girl only for two days, have seen her three days. It’s alright I guess. It won’t be that bad if things work out the other way around. Starting with matchsticks, soap powder and eventually culminating into…!
No, it won’t be that bad.
The book was lying over the blankets. The pages have automatically turning ahead to expose another part of the book from where I left it. I closed it and put it on the table. One should concentrate while reading. No use just pretending to read. It was one thing if it would have been an ordinary book; it was intimidating like a fire, takes a long while even to comprehend the concept of one single page. I pulled the blankets to my chin this time.
Those people are becoming rare who consider somebody beautiful just because of their white skin. I don’t have any intention of making that kind of a mistake. Still I say the girl is beautiful. She was wearing a long sleeved sweater over her yellow floral printed frock. Most probably the sweater was bought many days ago. Or she must have gained weight within the last few days. Except that I could not seem to recall anything else special of the girl’s appearance. I Could not check the girl from hair to toes in a police like gaze within that short period of time.
I went work in a hurry next day morning. Realising after coming half of the way that I forgot to carry any money on me; the cash was left on the table exactly as I put it for taking along. I returned. I saw after reaching the gate of the house that the girl was also trying to enter from the opposite side. Both of her hands were full of a clutter of things. The bag in the right hand, the cornflakes and milk container on the left one. We smiled at each other and I asked, “Have you been to the store?”
She replied in affirmative and went forward. I went ahead a little and stood opening the doors to the lift. I followed her inside after she went in with a ‘thank you’. Before pressing the button I asked her to which floor even though I knew it.
The lift went up. The girl put her things on the small bench and took out some one shilling coins and put it in front of me. I looked at her with amazement, “What does this mean?”
“Didn’t I take soap from you last night.” She said.
“No, no, forget about that. I didn’t mean to sell you the soap!”, I replied hurriedly.
“No, you bought the soap with money. Take it.” She extended her outstretched hand a little more towards me.
I shook my head in extreme disagreement, “It’s nothing. Moreover a full packet of soap powder costs eleven pence; yesterday’s box contained less than half of it.”
“I took other things also from you.”
“No you didn’t take anything, only four matchsticks; and can you possibly count the price of those few sticks? No-no, I can’t accept money from you.”
All this while the girl had a touch of smile and a tone of request on her face, suddenly she stared at me, the smiled vanished and the face hung down turning into an appearance resembling an impending rainy weather; just after a moment she retorted with a strange tone, “Don’t you believe on the value of money?”
I took the six pence coins extending my hand. My voice dampened and I said, “But it would also be wrong if I take one shilling. Both of us know how much worth of soap was there in the packet. Take this.” I extended one six pence to her. She didn’t put forth her hand, nor did she show any sign of accepting.
The lift halted on the fourth floor making both of us aware. This time also it was me who opened and closed the door of the lift. She only thanked me once again.
Never before have I had this kind of an experience of plunging into such a serious situation with a mere acquaintance within this short stretch of a time. While walking along side the girl through the long corridor I could not think of anything which would normalise the situation, so I ended up asking, “Do you stay on this floor?”
“No, I stay on the fifth floor.” I knew that, just didn’t know in which room. I was thinking of something else to ask the girl assuming it would be inappropriate to suddenly ask a girl about her room number, just then she said, “If you don’t mind, do come to my place, maybe we can chat.”
I looked at her and said, “Sure, sure; you also visit my room, spend some free time.”
She stopped, agreeing. Here are the stairs to climb up. The lift only comes to the fifth floor, the people on the sixth floor have to climb one storey. Turning towards the stairs she again said, “So I will see you again then. I stay in room number fifty nine. Usually stay indoors after eight o’clock in the evening. Come whenever it suits you.”
“Alright then” I said and intended to turn towards my room, even she was climbing up the stairs, then I asked, “May I know your name?”
“Oh yes”, she said and stopped placing her two legs on the two steps, “Angela Rey, you can call me Angela.”
I liked the girl talking with me standing and turning on the middle of a long flight of stairs. The sight had a dramatic flair to it.
She also asked my name. She didn’t even hear it properly the first time I said. Could not understand the second time I said. I started spelling my surname after the third time, s-a-.
She nodded her head pretending to understand and went up. I understood she can never pronounce my name unless I said it to her again five or six times, read it to her repeatedly after writing it down in a paper with block letters. Nobody I met here had managed to do it.
For many days Angela’s that phrase came to my mind__ do I understand the value of money or not! I have reached such a stage in my life after constantly reading the cumber some pages of the economics of life that I venture to think, what better will the big bosses of Reserve Bank might say than me about the value of money! Even after that if there is a little discrepancy in the accounts, then the streets are filling up with people like Angela who duly utilises the chance to correct me. I feel ashamed. And I feel further ashamed if someone who knows the value of money so well unnecessarily gives me six pence extra, I feel really poor. I have no desire to consume the extra six pence, there I tossed them over the table, they are there.
Catching the sight of those very six pence coins one day I remembered there was an oral agreement about visiting the girl’s room, I didn’t manage to do that. I glanced over the clock, it’s half past nine. I was feeling really drained out after the relentless labour from the morning till now. Also didn’t feel like glancing through the horoscope in the name of studying. This is just the kind of time when one feels like gossiping with someone to release some stress. There was no way out until today. Even today Angela’s proposal is the only available option. Though there was a little thinking to do before going to her room I didn’t do so. If she can invite me, I also can go. There is no meaning in making a knotty mess out of a neatly stretched out bunch of thread.
I knocked thrice at the fifty ninth door. Pat came the reply from inside, “Just a moment”. One moment, two moments it’s almost going to be one whole minute, the door is yet to open. I stood there without worrying too much after all it’s a woman’s matter; they deserve the relaxation of one or two minutes. Angela held the door open after that. Her long hair tied in the shape of a conch shell like high bun of a hermit-girl, her bare feet over the carpet. I asked, “Were you sleeping?”
“No-no, please come in”, she said promptly.
My suspicion did not go away after noticing her face and eyes or her clothes; I said, “You look just out of bed. I won’t trouble you if you wanted to sleep. I will come some other day, later.”
“No, no, I was just lying down. Please do come in.”—I noticed cordiality in her voice. There shows a damp rigidness in an unwilling invite; I went inside because Angela’s face didn’t bear that look. Pointing to the sofa she asked me to sit. Everything was going alright until then, but she surprised me a little after that. As soon as I took my seat she also sat down on her bed. I thought maybe she will chat with me sitting down there, but she raised her feet to the bed, pulled down the pile of blankets first till her knees then till her neck, pressed her elbow against the pillow, and placing her head over her palm she looked at me asked, “How are you?”
I felt bad. Even I was feeling enough cold that would allow me to pull up the pile of cloth till my neck. So many January nights went by– when the stubbornly vocal guests do not seem to finish their gossip; the blanket on the bed is starting to cry; yet we are laughing like imbeciles in sync with our guests, we can’t feel our legs due to the cold and still we are sitting erect.
Tonight’s cold is not as bad as that! Angela could have stayed sitting up this much time, at least for the sake of a guest.
I replied, “I am good. What about you?”
“I am getting by; I am fed up of my job. Uh, I am terribly tired you know!”—she removed her hand and placed her head on the pillow after that.
As if it was me who sent her to do the job. I made an attempt to get up from the sofa and said, “Yes, you look very tired. You need to rest. I will leave now.”
“Oh no-no, please do sit down. Honestly I am not uncomfortable at all. Chat, chat about anything.” She arranged her blankets over her neck saying that.
I was really uncomfortable. Felt like coming out of the room on the pretext of something. Finding no way out I started looking around. A totally messy room; there was no sign of an grown woman inhabiting that place. But the owner of the room was lying clearly in front of me so I zeroed in on her lack of taste in tidiness. There were a number of sauce pans of various sizes turned to black and piled one on top of another in a corner. Seeing the two shoes belonging to the same pair on one side of the room gave an impression of there being two one legged girl in a double seated room, who kept their shoes apart after coming from a walk, afraid of mistaking one for the other. I was amused by one fact, there was a rope tied across the room following the eternal custom, from where some crumpled clothes were hanging.
“Is your room also this big?” I was startled at Angela’s voice. So the girl is clever enough. I shouldn’t have looked around; or should have pretended as if I didn’t see anything. She must have had a look at my room even if it was from the threshold! Then why did she ask? Must be because of my inquisitive eyes.
“No, it is not”, I said. “Mine is smaller than this. There is no place to properly arrange my belongings. Your one seems better, roomy enough.”
She said, “I am fed up of staying in this room.”
“An old prune lives under it, she is making it impossible for me to stay here”.
“Why?” I asked increasing my stamina this time.
“Apparently she finds it disturbing even if I walk a little hurriedly. She always complains to the house keeper.”
“You don’t exercise inside the room, do you?”—I asked.
“Never. But according to the old hag I should remove my shoes the minute I enter the room; should walk like a cat and should not climb down from bed after ten o’clock in the night. Why doesn’t she herself move to the top floor, is beyond me!” the shrinking forehead of Angela’s showed lines of irritation.
After a considerable lapse of time when I turned towards Angela to say something, I saw her looking at me with constantly blinking eyes. I thought I guessed what this blinking meant. If the sleep deprived eyelids are closing down, yet one has to keep the eyes open for some reason, this blinking happens. I got up. Said, “You must be sleepy, do sleep. I also have to sleep early tonight. We will meet again.”
Angela released a tired sleep-heavy smile and waving her right hand from under the pile of clothes said, “Good night. Have a nice sleep”.
I went out saying, “Same to you, good night.” Even after so much boredom I felt good at that moment. The last phrase Angela uttered fell into my ear like a half-formed phrase of some little sleepy girl.
After that I didn’t see Angela for a long time. There was not any urge to go to her room. Who knows this time she might open the door in deep sleep without even opening her eyes! Still I kept hoping to indirectly make her understand that if it’s her habit to sleep at nine o’clock, then she should invite guests over at such a time when she can manage to stay erect to converse with them. Better still she does not invite them!
I totally forgot about Angela under the pressure of work during those days. One day I returned early to room and just placed my hands on the shoe strings and then suddenly I heard the sound of something passing through the corridor with a thumping sound. These kind of strange noises keep emerging every now and then in the corridor. I don’t know how. After some time again the same thumping sound. Not only that; in between some interval the thumping morphed into a thudding sound. I was annoyed a little. Especially if one does not know the source of the sound it’s even more annoying. Just then there was a thud sound outside my door. I went out. Angela. She was arranging her hair keeping a big suitcase on the floor. Her face turning red and shining with perspiration.
“What are you doing?”—I asked surprised.
“I am changing my room. Can you help me out a little?” she asked.
I sensed what kind of help. I have done the job of carrying luggage when my friends shift their houses before. “Sure”, I said.
Huffing and puffing she went to keep the suitcase in some room; meanwhile I also took off my coat. Then following her climbed up to room number fifty nine. The room was in total mess with all the clattered things, not even room enough to place the foot; I have no idea where did she keep all these stuff the day I visited her. Clothing iron, electric heater, cooker, piles of books, boxes; a layer of dust over all the things and various kinds of clothes are strewn all over the room.
She started pushing some of them inside the suitcase in front. I guessed from the way she was pushing the things that, for now it will suffice just to carry the things somehow to the other room; tidying them up can be done later. I asked her pushing the cuffs of my shirt to the elbow, “To which room you are shifting?”
“Room no. thirty five second floor.” Angela replied as if she was saying the address of her destination after getting into a taxi. I was a little taken aback by her tone. People show this sort of temper after fighting and forsaking their homes in dramas. Still I asked, “Why did you change the room so suddenly?”
“That old hag”,– she clenched her teeth, “She drove me crazy”. She closed the suitcase with a thud after saying that; quickly locked it and said to me after looking straight at my face, “Can you please carry the suitcase to that room?” The phrase registered into my ears like a rude sentence where one can replace the ‘can you please’ with a ‘quit blabbering’. Had it been some other place and some other time I would have walked out delivering a, “It’s none of my business”; but I don’t know why I picked up the suitcase silently. It was a really heavy one. There might be something already inside before she packed the clothes. I dragged it down two floors after putting in much effort and placed it in front of room no. thirty five. The door was open, I went inside. I saw a boy sitting there on a chair. By boy I meant a grown adult one. We looked at each other. I was obviously surprised, realised as was he. None of us seem to find anything to talk about. I put down the suitcase and returned to room no. fifty nine in haste. Angela was filling up another suitcase by then. I asked, “Who is he sitting there?”
She said, “I don’t know him. He was there in that same room; will go away someplace else today, that is why I could shift to that room. He is waiting for some friends to carry his luggage in their car. But can’t keep waiting!” She shouted after looking at the table clock, “Six thirty! Oh I am dead!”
“Why are you in such a hurry?”
“At eight o’clock…” she stammered for a moment then said, “I have to go see my Mom. Will you please hurry up?” She pushed the suitcase towards me. When I crossed the threshold carrying the suitcase she said, “Empty the suitcase on the floor and bring it back, these things have to be put there again, got it?”
Got it. The suitcase has to be used like a basket.
I became tired after half an hour of carrying that luggage and climbing up and down two storeys. Angela herself must be about of five and a half feet, with well formed healthy legs and arms, must at least weight one stone more than me; yet I don’t understand under what presumption she made me work like that. I am not saying that she was just sitting there doing nothing, there were drops of sweat showing on her forehead; I am just saying that she should not have picked out the heavier things and pushed them towards me. Even long term acquaintances use phrases like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when they ask you to pass the salt during meal; but my three day old acquaintance Angela’s attitude seemed as though I came home early from work just because she had some heavy lifting to do.
At last handing me a shopping bag of paper after filling it with cookeries Angela started looking around the nook and corners of the room. There was nothing except some old news papers and the furniture the land lord provided. Still she started kicking the pile of news papers looking if there was something left; just like the poor rag picker boys rummage through the spoilt cabbage leaves discarded by the shop keepers in our country.
A shoe brush surfaced. She slipped the brush inside the paper bag I was holding alongside the cookeries. Not having satisfied herself even with that she started looking here and there placing her hand on her waist; suddenly looking up she let out an ‘oh’, as if she was forgetting the main item! The rope used to hang clothes. She began untying the rope mounting on a chair, I came out.
The boy was still sitting in room no. thirty five. The air tight room was filled to the brim with cigarette smoke. The boy must have been chain smoking; because I saw one cigarette in his hand each time I came to put something. I was ashamed of my plight in front of the boy. All he knew was that this girl will stay in this room after he leaves, but where do I figure among all these? To somehow explain to the boy that I am nothing more than just a well meaning volunteer for this little while, I started chatting with him. British boy, studies by day and works by night. This long wait for his friend’s car was due to his own fault. He was really sorry for that. He failed to guess that the new occupant will come to the room so soon. I got it from the conversation that the boy was a gentle and polite one.
I didn’t notice the sound of a car stopping on the road downstairs, the anxious boy did. Looking through the glass on the window pan he saw__ yes the friend has arrived. Just then Angela came in holding in her hands her left over belongings. Picking the two suitcases with both of his hands the boy bade me good bye and said looking at Angela’s face, “May be I have seen you before.”
It was not a big deal, especially since it’s about people who live in the same house. But after emptying her hands putting the things on the floor she said, “I have never seen you before.”
I was astounded at her strange attitude and abnormally harsh tone. It felt like a tight slap. I didn’t dare to look at boy’s face. Yet I stole a quick look and noticed he was trying to smile, but was failing; he was trying to take Angela’s answer lightly which rendered his face red. He must have felt awkward to leave the room without saying anything,— he said in a voice which was mixed with the pleading tone of an accused, “Well perhaps…may be I am wrong…but I remember seeing you near… I mean in the nearby coffeehouse just around the corner.”
I couldn’t tell if the boy was going to say anything else; putting one of her hand on her waist Angela replied firmly in a harsher tone, “May be not, you are certainly mistaken. Be it far or near, nobody has ever seen me in any coffeehouse ever.”
“May be, it’s my mistake actually”, The boy said as if muffling his voice inside his mouth and went out.
I stood looking down. My face turning red with an acute sense of insult and an un-expression able anger. I was angry at the boy. I had a presumption, the British were not of that sort who will so easily let down their arms and surrender in silence. I have heard many stories and witnessed many scenes, starting from the stories of them drawing their swords out of their sheaths just after exchanging a few lines, to expressing their muffling displeasure after not receiving a due ‘sorry’ for somebody accidently brushing passed them on the street. That was the first time I saw a British boy who turned his other cheek.
There is a certain way in which a really accounts savvy business man, who wouldn’t even let water to pass through his fingers in vain, checks his stuff in the platform if it was unloaded properly from the train; Angela need not have done that, because she thoroughly looked through every item in room no fifty nine. But she did. She was pacing up and down moving the things with her arms and legs. But suddenly I had a feeling, she was not looking through the things, she was pacing up and down unable to stay still out of some kind of excitement; because she kicked away a kettle lying on her path instead of moving it away using her hands and I looked at her startled by the sound. Just at that moment she asked me to sit pointing towards a chair nearby.
This little hospitality by Angela felt like an unavoidable yet irritatingly bitter medicine. My limbs were aching after all the lifting, she reminded me about my staying standing up the whole time, by asking me to sit. And reminded me as soon as she kicked away a kettle. I checked if in any way I was standing in her path. In spite of trying enough to control myself I could not remain silent and said, “Thank you, I won’t sit. Let me ask you something, hope you won’t mind.” I clearly brought down the ‘you’ I said this time in the hierarchy of formality, as practised in my culture. I was forced to think that I was wasting my thoughts for an unworthy person, “Why did you behave so rudely with this boy?”
Angela cast a stern look at me. I guess she didn’t expect this question from me at all. Then she moved towards a corner of the room and said very firmly on the way, “He deserved that.”
I felt a sudden burst of anger rushing through my brain when I detected a tone of haughtiness in her voice instead of repentance. I said, “Why? He didn’t seem to say anything offensive! May be he had really seen you somewhere and…”
I didn’t have the chance to finish; Angela suddenly turned towards me halting her forward approach to the corner and shouted in a completely dramatic style, “Listen to me. There is a certain kind of man, and they have a special timing, when they happen to see us irrespective of time and place, they just happen to see us again and again; later they have another kind of time, when they are unable to see anything.”
“What does that suppose to mean?” I tried taking in what she said.
“You won’t get it. You are not a girl.”—she again proceeded towards the corner saying that. There was a telephone over the small table on the corner; she picked up the receiver leaning against the wall.
Since Satya Yoga, the ancient times some people have been continuously whining about this or that about man, man can only see ‘this’ of a woman, man wants woman only in ‘that’ avatar etc. I could not fathom what Angela was saying at first, but within the next moment I left it considering it to be part of that old withered saying.
But it was only the beginning. Whatever conversation I had with Angela after that can be termed vicious war compared to our introductory days.
Mean while Angela started talking over the phone. I couldn’t tell where the other end of the line was or who received the call; but the way Angela talked gave me a clear idea about the whole conversation. Someone received the call, but she wanted to talk to someone else in the same house. ‘In’ was written on the name plate of the man, so Angela cheered up and asked the man who received the call to fetch the other man. The man went. Within that waiting period Angela blinked at me with a really glad smile. Standing there with a person who is talking over phone and to emote in a similar way without having any clue about what is going on, is a hard task to accomplish. Still, even I smiled. The man who received the call returned after a little while. Angela concentrated carefully on the conversation and her face turned lifeless just after the first sentence. The door to the room of the man she asked for was closed, there was even a little light escaping from a slight parting of the door, but there was no answer to the knocking of the door. Angela impatiently discovered a possibility,– he might be in the bathroom. Surprisingly, she pleadingly requested the man to check if the door of the bathroom was closed or open. I was astonished. The poor man on the other end of the line—probably for the sake of a request in women’s voice, he again went after putting down the phone and gave the tidings on his return—the bathroom door is open nobody is in there. There was yet some trouble left for the man; Angela said, “My name is Angela Rey, I have called him thrice within this two hours, if you could convey this to him in some way I will be really grateful.”
The sound with which Angela put down the receiver after expressing her thankfulness, tempted me to want to immediately check it once, will the machine work again or not. She stood dumbstruck in a place after coming away from the phone, her nostrils were flaring and her eyes turned large with a bright spark. After that she suddenly picked up a suitcase from the middle of the room and sent it flying to the wall with thud sound; upturned another empty suitcase on the floor, rummaging through the dresses she picked up a floral printed plastic cover, and went straight to the sink and started washing it after opening the hot water tap. The water sprinkled far off from the sink, may be due to the extreme anxiousness on her hand.
She had been anxious since a really long time, but on what account she suddenly became so over whelmed with emotion I had no way of getting to know. I guessed—after three failed calls she was out of her mind. There can be so many reasons for not answering the door even if one is inside. In a place like London some of those reasons may be aggressive. If Angela has turned insane after assuming that kind of an extreme reason for the man not opening his door, then the whole incident must have a vast background, as of now I am clueless about it.
Mean while, I didn’t possess the patience to stand watching a retarded girl wash clothes. I moved and said, “It’s better I leave you alone now, I will see myself out.”
“No, no, have a seat, do you have something to attend to now?” Angela asked in a really normal voice.
“It doesn’t matter if I have anything to do or not, but for some reason you really seem unsettled. Moreover you are washing clothes and you said you will go and visit your Mom after a short while, so I want to leave.”
Angela moved away from the sink, picked up a piece of cloth and wiped her hands with that; after that she said with a tired smile, “What? Am I being too unsettled? What to do! At times things happen so suddenly that you don’t get enough time even to prepare yourself to handle the situation. All right, I am fine now; please forgive me for keeping you in an uncomfortable situation for a while.” Making her smile a little brighter Angela clapped her hands as if to shake off her uneasiness which was set like dust on them. She sat with a thump on the nearby sofa after that and immediately let out a sigh saying, “Uh, I am terribly thirsty.”
I was beginning to think about the meaning of the things she said earlier, but suddenly her last phrase rang in my ear,– she was thirsty.
There is a long list of beverages for the thirsty people here. If one is willing one can start with Champaign, if not than one can come down to a bottle of beer or cider, if there was no way out may be a cup of coffee or a glass of lemon squash; but it can never come down to a glass of water. There is not any hard and fast rule as such, but I have never noticed that. Especially when a woman says she is thirsty, then to offer her a glass of water is equivalent to offering some one betel nut, the after meal refreshment in my place, to someone who says he was hungry.
I had performed enough gentlemanliness since evening, showed enough patience, but still after thinking for a little while I couldn’t help saying, “If you don’t mind, then I can prepare you a cup of coffee if you come to my room.”
Angela thanked me with absolute happiness. This was the first ‘thank you’ after I carried her entire house hold. Moreover using a phrase which was on the tip of the tongue of the British unanimous she expressed that, (turns out) I am a too kind man.
“So then you come whenever it’s convenient, I will go prepare the coffee” I came out saying that. I didn’t have the chance to start the preparation, Angela already came in. The way she dropped her head on the sofa after sitting leaning against it, looked like as if she was an ill woman who went to the hospital herself for medicine and now that she reached the hospital she sat down then and there on the veranda.
Angela looked around and said, “You really keep the room tidy.”
“Really?”—I said it for the sake of saying something.
“Of course, it’s clean and tidy all over, the things are well arranged, you are certainly a happy man.”
“Happy man! How come this has anything to do with being happy or sad?” I thought- let’s come back to my real temper and teach her a good lesson, so that she will think once before asking me to carry her things. “Oh life would have been so much easier if staying tidy made man happy. Do you know this or not – the operation rooms are among the cleanliest rooms in the world?”
Angela said, “That doesn’t matter, it is not the same.”
I said, “It is the same. Moreover one needs certain amount of things to clutter one’s room! With what shall I clutter my room? This is the bed, those are the books. Well I can put the books on the bed, cover the stove with the bed sheet, sleep joining the two chairs together; maybe then you will call me unhappy?”
Angela stared at my face for a moment; then said slowly, “You don’t understand what I am saying. And the perspective from which you analysed what I said, I get it—you will never understand what I am saying. Well leave all this. What do you do?” The calm, polite tone with which Angela started speaking, made me wonder is this the same girl who had donned the avatar of the furious Hindu goddess Ranachandi, half an hour ago?”
I said what I did; then asked, “What do you do?”
“I am a model”, she said in an almost lifeless voice.
“Model What kind of model?”
“What do you mean by what kind of model?”
I fumbled. “I mean…there are various kinds of models. For instance, commercial, meaning modelling for advertisements, modelling for photographer…”
Even before I finished Angela said, “No-no, modelling for drawing, in the Art school.”
I couldn’t say anything for a while. I considered her beautiful the very first day I saw her, still I looked at her as if for the first time. She was sitting but I wanted to look at her standing posture. Models are valuable in the markets of London, they are famous, they are the centre of a certain kind of stir whether it is big or small, and whatever it is there is a real or unreal heat in the very name of the model. And if Angela was not joking than right at that moment there was a model sitting in my room.
For a few moments I started looking at Angela like I would look at a model. As if there is something called modelling which was there stuck somewhere on her body; and if there indeed was something like that, then it was as if I was trying to locate it. My gaze slid down from Angela’s smooth face to her chin-neck–. I looked at her torso for as long as possible in a civil way without making it apparent. She was sitting leaning against the sofa with crossed legs and she holding all of her fingers together on the back of her head and resting her head against them; the gesture didn’t do much to hide anything, still—I felt the urge to look at her as a model once she stands up,– it was similar to the urge to have a look at the left hand finger tips of a good sitar player.
By then I had filled the kettle with two cups of water and had put it on the stove; I planned to talk till the water boils. I asked in a genuinely curious tone, “What does it mean to model for drawing, — tell me what do you have to do?”
Without losing a second, without changing her sitting position, Angela suddenly became agitated and said, “I have to stay standing, sitting, lying down, kneeling down naked in front of the kids who learn how to draw.”
I am the kind of boy who came out of his home to a foreign country after kneeling down alongside my Ma and sobbing in front of an earthen prayer lamp which was lighted with a dollop of butter; I didn’t possess the nervous system which could carry on a conversation taking the cue from what Angela just said. I didn’t know why, but after looking at her face I assumed the water must have boiled. I went up and checked lifting the cork of the kettle. Actually it was my illusion; the water didn’t yet make the shh… shh… sound. In spite of that I didn’t come back to my earlier place, I began arranging the table a little too neatly with the cup-plates, spoons, the sugar container and the milk bottle from the shelf. A few days acquainted girl was going to have her first cup of coffee in my room, for that I would have been a little concerned anyway, but the tone of Angela’s last words made me doubtful. Is the girl really moody? The whole evening she was angry like Shiva incarnated, the most volatile God of the Hindus’ the Shiva, then she remained sitting in my room on the sofa like a patient who had reached home after getting her own medicines from the hospital, then suddenly again that temper?
After that the conversation between us resembled that of the busy telephone operator of my country.
Some clinging sound from the cup-plates.
“I won’t mind”
A little silence.
“Very nice coffee”.
Finishing her coffee and biscuits before me Angela washed the cup-plates over the sink and wiped them properly with the towel. What I was thinking was that she wouldn’t even do that much, so I liked it when she did.
She didn’t show any sign of sitting down on the sofa again after putting down the cup-plates.
“Are you going out somewhere?”- I asked.
“Yes I am. I have to go to my mom. Tell her about shifting the room. There is no telephone where my mom stays.”- Angela replied simply.
“Does your mother also live in London?” I tried not to look surprised as best as I could.
“Yes she does. Thank you for the coffee. So I will take your leave now.”
“Yes, all right”.
Yes indeed there was. There were signs of a model in the girl. By signs of a model I meant it’s just that— her figure-looks, the girl was beautiful over all. How am I supposed to know exactly what qualities made a model!
When she was going out of the door I kept thinking all these, looking at her; but my train of thought took a turn when she finally closed the door. It was I who carried her stuff, I who invited her over for a coffee, and eventually was it still her haughtiness which was there suppressing everything? What did she think of me! I am not counting how many times she did or did not thank me. My only concern is what is her final idea about me? While we were having coffee thought crossed my mind once, if she sits calmly for some time today, then I would try to understand her mood by hook or by crook, and at least I would make her see the point that there are lots of luggage in her household, they are heavy, and my physical strength was low proportionate to their weight, consequently my limbs are still aching.
But she did not sit down. All right. Now she had moved to a room just twenty feet apart from mine. Where will she escape to? Definitely I will meet her one day.
But I didn’t have to wait for that ‘one day’; Angela came in to my room again the very same night. It was about nine thirty in the night, there was sound knocking on the door just then. Generally friends who can just come into the room and shout “What’s up” knock in that fearless manner, the other knocks are a little gentle. But opening the door I saw Angela.
As soon as I opened the door, Angela entered with the swiftness of a second occupant of the shared the room, and plunged into the sofa before I could say anything. She was coming from somewhere outside. She was wearing a beautifully colourful frock, which was tight till the waist and blown after that till the end; her hair was deliberately tangled into a conch shell like shape, and the complexion of her face was dangerously close to the colour of her lipstick.
The lift in the house used to close down at nine o’clock in the night. Angela must have had came up by climbing fifty stairs. That’s why she must have been tired! She pulled out a handkerchief from her hand bag and used it as a bloating paper to wipe off her forehead, cheeks, neck etc.
I was still busy arranging the gown on me. Assuming it to be some Indian friend I opened the door wearing whatever I normally wear inside, but the minute I saw the lady I began fumbling with the gown after taking it down from the stand; which resulted in my left hand going into the right sleeve.
Tying the knot with the gown string over my waist I asked—“You’ve been to somewhere?”
She already told me she will visit her mom, but a question like “So have you met your mom?”- might lead to harbouring more than necessary intimacy, so I did not ask that question.
“No, I have been to hell”— saying that she threw her handbag to my bed which was nearby.
Been to hell? I was anxious. I looked over to the clock—it’s sixteen minutes to ten. What a trouble! The whole afternoon went by like that, and now at this hour of night a model just returned from hell in my room!
I couldn’t think of anything to say or ask. In that country of ‘mind your own business’ it was difficult enough to even open your mouth in front of people you had just met. It was okay till ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’; but after that, even a “how are you?” is not safe enough. What interest do you have in knowing how I am? Well, fair enough. How am I is the most important question of my personal life. It’s not possible to just go about on the streets answering to that question. I don’t have any right to hurt someone saying “I am not fine”, and it’s a bad habit to always lie around saying “I am fine”. This is one of the probable reasons for people discussing weather just after exchanging ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ here. Weather is a common thing to all, what other question can be as neutral and unbiased as asking “Isn’t the weather nice today?”
But it was impossible to ask Angela about the weather at ten o’clock at night inside a room. Especially from which land she declared she had just returned, I had no idea if there was a thing like weather in that land of hell. I kept looking at her with a fixed gaze. With the hesitance of sitting down on someone else’s bed, I sat down on my own bed near her hand bag. May be because of the light at ten o’clock at night, I found Angela’s face really beautiful. But the seriousness on her face alarmed me. I didn’t have any intention of coining a phrase like ‘hellish seriousness’ to create humour, but I was worried at her seriousness.
I was thinking about what to ask and Angela said, “Can you treat me with a cup of coffee?”
“Of course”—what else should I say? So I said it. I went up and was filling water in the kettle from the tap, and just then Angela asked, “Do you have milk?”
“If you have then please make the coffee in milk. No need to add water. I really like coffee made only in milk.”
Forget anybody else- even if it was my wife on our wedding night who had uttered these lines not to me but just to the servant boy through the crevice of the half open door, then also I would have considered that my life had been cursed.
Putting the kettle down, I brought out the saucepan. Half a bottle milk was left, I emptied the bottle over the sauce pan; completely opened the gas button of the stove, the fire came alive with a ‘dhup’ sound.
The only good thing coming out of it was that I was free from my anxious and alarmed state. One night a fat, short mackintosh wearing British guy blocked my way. I was afraid, it was a deserted road, and the area was infamous, besides I was a black man. But my fear disappeared the minute the man said “Can you give me money for one cup of tea?” It was almost the same this time. I tried hard to conceal my irritation, but prepared myself secretly, I won’t spare her this time. If she makes a scene with her angry high pitched dialogues then I prepared myself to accept that nonchalantly like the noise of someone else’s engine which was run by my oil. Then I asked, “So you are saying you are back from hell?”
“Oh ignore all that” she said with irritation.
“No, I mean—you are back from such an extraordinary place within a few hours, I am really amused hearing that. Normally people don’t tend to return from hell! In spite of that we returned with such grace, that’s why I want to know—where is that hell, how is it like!”
Angela asked in a firm voice, “Do you know a hell can build up centring round a single living being?”
Yes, yes I knew it to be true for the hundredth time. Pretending I didn’t have a clue I said, “Is that so? Tell me; explain it with whatever you said earlier. There is no guarantee, you girls, who knows where–”
I could not finish, Angela screamed out of irritation, “Wait, people are turning loathsome creatures using the excuse of this being ‘girl’.”
“What do you mean? Are you talking about me?” I straightened up on my seat.
“No- no, I am not talking about you. I am talking about one…”
The man she talked about, according to her he is the child of one couple who were not tied together with the vows of marriage. It was as if she shook with anger saying that.
I didn’t expect Angela to give the description of some hell; I said what I said just to have some fun. But surprising me she kept on saying many things.
“You know, one man always praises me a lot, and asks me out on almost every Saturday. He was saying about going with me for dinner in a good hotel. I didn’t say anything. But one feels like going for a good dinner every now and then, doesn’t one?
“Today is the day I am moving from my room. I promised to go out with him for dinner thinking it would be nice to go out and have a nice meal after the hard day’s work. I called him in the morning. He repeatedly emphasised over phone that I couldn’t come back after the dinner and have to go with him to his room. I refused. I made it clear to him— I will come back after the dinner. He cut the call without saying much. You were there in my room when I called him in the evening. As far as I believe he was still there in his room, but didn’t open the door. I went looking for him, there was light escaping from under his closed door, I knocked, but the door won’t open. I don’t know how but I had a strong feeling that he was there inside. I began pounding the door. He has to come out because he invited me for dinner. I don’t know what happened next? Clutching her dressing gown over her breasts one woman popped her head out of the door. The woman said that— apparently he was not there in the room. I felt like punching on my own head out of vicious anger. Losing my mind I asked, “If he is not in, then what you are doing here?”. The woman shut the door with a bang saying “It’s none of your business”. Can you imagine how mean can people be?”
“Did you have your dinner?”—I asked a little anxiously.
“I would rather ask you for a cup of milk or coffee, I know what does that make me in front of your eyes; but I will never have that kind of a dinner.”
Angela’s eyes were bulging in anger, but I noticed may be because they started to dampen, the sparkle was not there in them.
I couldn’t converse with Angela after that. She finished her tea-biscuits in silence, washed up the cup plates, and went out asking leave like an unknown passerby who took shelter in the veranda because of the rain.
I understood the matter completely. Some man had planned to spend a good night with Angela after having a good dinner; bur Angela would have the dinner only and wouldn’t spend the night, so the man found a woman who would do both. It’s obvious. What is in there to make such fuss? I have seen many of my friends—their girl friends will come on Saturday evenings, they will watch a film or play in pair, have a good meal in good place, Sunday afternoon both of them come out of the boy’s room dressed up, indulge in parks and restaurants till ten o’clock at night, then they part. Later the remaining five days the telephone functions as their only mode of connection. After the five days again comes the Saturday. These are ordinary things. It can’t be that also that Angela didn’t know anything about these ordinary things! Or is she a fool! She must be a fool. There happened to be two brothers who divided a cow between them; the stupid one between them got the front side of the cow, he only fed her; the clever one who got the rear part only drank milk. If Angela could think of that guy to be the fool who will only have dinner then she must be a greater idiot herself.
But didn’t have the heart to consider a model an idiot, who stands naked in front of artists in the city of London. Specially the avatar in which I had been seeing her since afternoon, judging from that not only she didn’t seem an idiot, instead I felt like considering myself one. The situation was really puzzling. It was Angela who went out saying “I am going to see my mom” and returned facing the slur of grown woman who was engrossed in her Saturday making out, and I was the moron who sat worried after finishing up my milk which was stored for the morning and by making coffee out of it for someone else! To sup up something was going on. Either it was a fair of idiots or something was really wrong.
When I lay on bed thinking all these later my thoughts gathered on Angela’s empty stomach. Only some coffee and biscuits went in the stomach prepared for dinner! She will lie there hungry expressing her agitation against some guy’s misbehaviour, I didn’t like that. There were some eatables like bread, butter, a couple of apples etc in the shelf; I should have offered her some of them. My mistake. What is the relation between expressing agitation and staying hungry?
But in the coming days Angela introduced me to that facet of the two things, meal and agitation which was alarming.
She would just come in irrespective of any timing, and start asking without even chatting for a few seconds: “Do you have Ovaltine? Some spoonfuls of sugar? Don’t you keep beer? Have you ever tasted the wine called Bosley 57 fifty seven?”
I didn’t keep beer in my shelf, have not tasted BOSLEY 57; but tea-coffee-Ovaltine -horlicks-fruits etc whatever I kept, Angela began assaulting them.
One day she might imagine indulgently, sitting snuggled in the sofa, “You know, I am planning—to rent a flat with other two girls. There will be kitchen, bedroom, and a well furnished lounge. How can people live without a lounge to sit comfortably and talk happily?”
No, no of course they can’t. “Why don’t you go? There is not any scarcity for that kind of a flat in London! Take a flat in Piccadilly Circus and set your lounge there.” I said in a controlled sarcasm. I had no idea what would have been Angela’s reply, just then downstairs on the street a hawker shouted—“Straw-Berry”.
Angela ran to the window instantly, looked at the man down, and said to me returning quickly, “He has got strawberries! Oh how much I like strawberries! Ah, how wonderful!”
Noticing my expressionless face she asked, “What? Don’t you like strawberries?”
I went out of the room, went down by the lift, bought strawberries from the hawker, and came back.
And munching on those very strawberries Angela spoke, “Let’s have BOSLEY 57 one day. We’ll have it sitting here itself, it will be great fun.”
One day I was cooking rice in strictly my country way. I poured a little rice according to my need on the saucepan filled half with water, tearing the pack labelled ‘Patna Rice’, just then there was a knock on the door.
“What are you doing?” Angela asked putting her face over the saucepan as if looking into a mirror which was lying flat on the table.
“All right. Today I will try having rice cooked in your Indian style.” Angela became engrossed in her own happiness saying that. I picked up the pack of rice irritatingly.
Angela asked, “What will do?”
“I was cooking for myself; now that you are also eating I am adding some more rice. But let me tell you one thing; I didn’t make the preparation well enough to entertain a guest, so you won’t like the meal today. If you really want the taste of our country cuisine then fix a date, I will also prepare everything properly that day__”
She didn’t let me finish and said, “No, no, it’s nothing; it’s better to come suddenly like this and have it. Wait, you don’t need to put in more rice. I don’t eat that much. I have semolina with me; it will be certainly nice if you mix rice with semolina. She went out of the room saying that. I stood there astonished. A little later Angela came in holding a packet in her hand. I had never seen semolina before. I took the packet from Angela’s hands. The packet was open, half of the content already used. It was like the fried rice powder we have as snack back home.
“Pour half of it in there.”
“These are powdery stuff, how will it go with the rice?” I asked her surprised.
“It will be good, it will be good; just put it in.”
I hesitated. Seeing that Angela took the packet from my hands and poured a lot of semolina into the saucepan.
I had tasted different kinds of boiled concoctions, had various kinds of rice meal also, but never encountered this strange thing which was prepared according to Angela’s advice. Angela showed her apparent satisfaction with munching down some of it along with fried herring fish; and I had two meals together at a time paying double from the nearby Indian hotel ‘Durbar’ early in the evening.
Later I was forced to take up different measures for my eating arrangements. I have to keep an account of my household. When it came to the sharing of my kitchen shelf I didn’t plan to do it with any not related woman except my wife. And I couldn’t afford it so I didn’t have a wife back then. I hid the containers of different items behind clothes.
–I don’t have any.
–I don’t have tea.
And my answers didn’t contain too much softness. But after answering I fear of things like—the Ovalteen container would sneeze under the clothes, the coffee container would cough–!
And along with these cajoling of food almost every day there was one or kind of protest demonstration by Angela. For instance she might enter the room one day and say with a furious gesture, “I should have kicked him in his belly!”
What happened? Angela went to watch a movie; there was an American sitting beside her. He elbowed her.
“What do you mean elbowed you? Perhaps his elbow just brushed pass you!” I said. By then the ‘you’ with which I addressed her had come down to the lowest rank of formality practiced in my culture.
“I am not a child to not get that.” She said angrily.
I said intending to tease her, “Okay I get it, you are not a child; you are adult enough to know what does it mean when a guy’s body touches yours. But do tell me, how many times did he elbow you?”
“From the time the movie began till the end, the whole time.”
“How did he have the chance to elbow you the whole time? Look Angela, right now the American must have been telling his friends—that he watched a movie sitting beside a girl today, and the girl kept pressing his hand all the time.”
Angela burst up in flames with anger. She must have had left with a start had it not been for the half finished cup of Ovaltine in front of her.
One day she announced sitting on the sofa in my room—she would leave the job of modelling.
Why? She wouldn’t tell me for a while. Wanted to leave out the real reason saying—just like that, I don’t like it anymore etc. Even I didn’t coax her too much. But I don’t know what happened suddenly, Angela asked me, “Since I am doing the job with my body, I have to be aware of its value also, isn’t it? For instance the fingers of a typist, the legs of a football player, you are in academics so your brain–”.
“All right forget about my brain; tell me what the matter is.”
“I am sitting on a high stool, those idiots,– the bloody swines whose’ entire ancestry has no relation with Art whatsoever, sit surrounding me and look at my body every once in a while, and scribble something. The instructor decided today—light would fall on my body from one side, there would be the play of light and shadows over the curves on my body, and those fools will draw that. The curtain of the window on the west was pulled because of that. The sun light fell on me from the west. There also fell the shadows of the iron frame of the closed window on some parts of my body; so the students expressed their annoyance: the window was opened as a result. Suddenly after a short while I noticed—one man was looking at me through the window of a house across the street. I jumped up and wrapped around the gown lying nearby. They were angry. They complained to the instructor, who scolded me, it turns out I spoilt today’s lesson. I am restless, disobedient. But nobody among paid attention to the fact that an outsider was looking at my naked body. I will quit, if I lose my mind like this!”
Angela kept sitting after finishing the narration in anger, excitement and frustration. I didn’t feel like provoking her again. But I really expected the answer to something. I asked, “How many students were there painting you at that time?”
“Eighteen.” They sat surrounding Angela at different distances and each painted her with their personal angle.
“Then why don’t you assume that there were nineteen people in total sitting around you? May be that man also had an artistic sensibility, maybe he was also from his angle looking at your body…”
“Don’t be silly”. Angela fumed. “Don’t talk like an idiot. Everybody pretends to be an artist once they get the whiff of a woman’s body. Should I go around satiating the needs of every other freak there is in the whole world in exchange of seven pounds a week? If I have to stand naked in front of that nineteenth man for the sake of being the model for an art school, then what is the crime of the wife of the first man going around with the second one?”
One night at ten thirty Angela came into my room knocking at the door impatiently. I asked, “What’s the matter, you seem disturbed?”
“This Chrissie is a living devil.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I went to his room as a friend; and he pounced on me. See what a devil! What is happening to the people? They can’t control themselves even for ten minutes!”
I had witnessed many protest demonstration by Angela, but I felt bad learning about what Chrissie did. Chrissie was a British boy. We became friends in that very house. He was a student of science, immensely talented, besides he had a cultured and sensible heart. Once he explained to me about a political situation of their country; the language and tone of that description was the first thing which introduced his intellect to me. One revolutionary propagated a new politics in their country after eradicating the roots of the past regime. But one day decline also came to the hugely popular revolutionary. The rebels surrounded him from all sides. As a last resort of connection to the masses he entered the studio of the radio station. The speech in front of the microphone ceased. The revolutionary leader confronted the rebels. That was a music recording studio. Various legendary musical instruments of west Asia were kept carefully around the room, as if as soon as the artists come and take their seats the jingle of sweet music would engulf the whole nation! There was a loud noise of many rounds of bullet in the room after that. The revolutionary leader lay down with a blood drenched body among those very musical instruments.
The description of this incident from Chrissie’s mouth was enough for making me come closer to him. Our friendship deepened over time. He gifted me a beautiful lead knife used for cutting meat he brought from Iraq. I gifted him a good tie on Christ mass.
I didn’t like when the same Chrissie behaved like that with Angela. What I mean is, I don’t have any opinion or comment about these kind of incidents, they happen; what I am saying is that – there are so many girls, Chrissie is a good person, it would have been good if Angela was not involved in this.
The evening after that, perhaps because I liked Chrissie I suddenly asked, “Hey, so what happened last night?”
“I am talking about Angela”.
“Oh”, Chrissie laughed out loud. “Have seen chasing away vultures with blank fire? I blank fired to scare her.”
He said with irritation after a brief pause, “Days after days I have to keep feeding her with my scholarship money, and have to listen to her speech that all of the males on this earth are evil! How is it possible? I was fed up. So last night I blank fired. If she goes away taking me also to be an evil, then I am saved.” Chrissie laughed again. And said laughing, “This time around I will fire with real bullets.”
It means it’s not only me, Chrissie also? I was also thinking of doing something, but Chrissie had already done it. Chrissie had western blood in his veins, so he took that cure; but I can’t do that! So I began thinking about a way out. It would do me good if I could leave her company. I was in loss in terms of brain, money and time. Besides I am in a little fix in front of my native friends. One day Angela came in when there was already a friend in my room. I introduced her to the friend. In childhood when there were guests in home, we used to sit around the veranda of the kitchen hoping to chance upon a cup of tea with the guests; Angela stick around just like that, which consequently increased her familiarity with my friend. Later one day that friend was walking by the pavements bellow; Angela was walking round my room with her just washed long wet hair which was just like an Indian girl, cascading down her back to dry; she looked down through the window for some reason, the friend also looked up; when their eyes met Angela called him shouting, “Hello—come up.”
“Later.”- said the friend and left.
At ten o’clock in a Sunday morning Angela at my window with open hair?
I didn’t like all these. The only happy news is that—whatever gossip our people indulge in our country about who talked with whom on what corner or gateway; here all of a sudden they become really self controlled. If you get the hint that there is the girlfriend in some friend’s room, we came back without even knocking after reaching there travelling ten miles. We don’t even discuss about it later. I didn’t know what we would do once we return to our country; but here we had learned to consider these things trivial. While the wedding reception of my British friend Levin was in progress his ex girlfriend slapped him and left. But what a surprise till this date there was no discussion about it among us. Perhaps from all these, we have also learned to consider girlfriend related matters trivial.
Still at ten o’clock in a Sunday morning Angela at my window with open hair? I didn’t like this. Had to stop this.
Summing it all up, I was thinking what to do every now and then and Angela started complaining to me about the instructor of the art school one day.
I said in a slow, calm voice, “So tell me Angela, from whatever I understood, you have never met one good guy in the whole world. I have a feeling that if God keeps you alive for one thousand years to find a good man, then you will spend those one thousand years finding millions and millions of bad man. But you do keep sitting in my room till midnight! Who knows even I can grab you like Chrissie in any second! Even I am one among those evil men you have met!”
Angela kept staring at me for a while. I felt her eyes flaring up for the instant I finished, but later her look seemed lifeless. She said in a calm voice, “So you mean to say that I am myself is a filthy person, don’t you? If it was someone else other than you who had said this thing today__” Angela stopped.
“Go on, why did you stop? What have you done if it was someone else? And one more thing, whatever you would have done to someone else, do that to me also; I never forbid you!”
“It would be really awful to have a fight with you. Really unfortunate.”
I prepared myself to provoke just this kind of a fight, I said, “It won’t be anything awful or unfortunate, why spare me when you can go around picking a fight with so many people”.
Surprisingly Angela stayed calm. She said slowly, “Who likes to fight with people? Even I belong to your educated, civil and good society! Am I a goon? Teddy girl? But know this well that I am neither a moralist nor an idiot. I know how much my age is, I have a fairly good idea about how I look. Therefore I can imagine how people can treat me. But why would they? Why would they treat me badly?”
This time she was disturbed.
“Even I meet so many handsome guys, but look, I have never troubled them! Why? I am not disabled or impotent! I don’t trouble them—because I respect their body and mind. And I expect you to be also respectful to me. I don’t mind if you ask me out for a one night stand. But you can’t feel bad or force me if I refuse; you have to respect me that much. Just because I don’t have a family with a man till now, would you men presume that I am free for everybody to spend their nights with? And if I do come forward to spend a night with you, then it is you guys who should think about why I have not yet made the permanent arrangements for spending the night with one man! You guys don’t think about my this little anguish!”
Angela’s voice was getting strong, suddenly her voice became low and “Leave it, it’s foolish to be sentimental”—she stopped.
I was thinking of what to say; but Angela began in a meek voice after a brief pause, “The thing you told about pouncing on me, I know you can’t do that. I don’t consider you to be super human; still I believe you won’t do that. I do keep troubling all the time, so you are scaring me.” Angela laughed saying that.
“Trouble? No, no__”
“Don’t lie. I understand everything you know? Tea, coffee, horlicks, Ovaltine, rice, apple,__ I really felt bad troubling you so much for so many days. I was thinking of apologising and stopping all these; but I didn’t have chance, you stopped it already.”
“No, no, stop…”
“I really feel pity on you and myself when you say you don’t have coffee or tea. You don’t worry, I don’t mind. If I would have minded would I keep telling you about the bottle of Bosley 57, even after eating up all these things? You know what? I have real craving for that wine. But couldn’t get one because I can’t spare any money.”
Angela smiled again, I sat there in speechless. I don’t know why but the later part of what Angela said seemed as if a girl was mumbling something in her dreams.
I came to my senses when Angela went out of the room in silence with a tired stride. Repentance dawned on me slowly. And decided after a long while—I have to buy a bottle of Bosley 57.
One day the opportunity for a Bosley 57 came. It was a Sunday. It started to get misty from the afternoon. Before evening the street bellow became invisible from my window. The headlights of the slowly moving cars became tiny spots emanating deem light.
There was my friend Mazumdar in my room, my Sunday guest. We were leisurely gossiping away the afternoon after filling our stomachs to the brim with the meal of rice and curry made of herring fish and powdered mustard. Inside a cold Sunday, outside ten feet visibility due to the fog. My mood was turning damp slowly. Felt like doing something. Whatever records of Indian music I had, Mazumdar finished playing both of their sides while we were cooking. I was thinking of what to do, and Angela came knocking.
Perhaps because she came after such a long time that I shouted out a jolly hello as soon as saw her.
“Haven’t seen you in a while, have you been somewhere?”
“No I haven’t, have you seen the weather outside? Can’t see anything?”
Angela said in a damp voice. I was jolly and Angela was speaking in such a cold voice, as soon as I noticed that I thought, is she really mad at me for that day! Forget about having my tea-coffee, she didn’t even come to my room.
I tried to cheer her up, “if you go out nobody could see you, is that why you are upset? All right then, we can see you properly inside, let us keep looking at you instead. Isn’t so? Oh I almost forgot, this is my friend Mazumdar; I have already told him about you.”
Mazumdar shook hands with Angela standing up. Angela said with a thin smile, “What did you tell about me? As a bore who has made your life unbearable?”
Yes. She was still really upset. I was thinking quickly about how should I deny such a true statement and lighten the situation, and Mazumdar recued me speaking up. Mazumdar was a strong hearted and aggressive boy; he didn’t have the habit of speaking very carefully and choosing his word. He said, “Do you have that identity also? That’s a good thing! He will surely be very lucky whose life become unbearable for girl like you!”
“Oh I don’t know. It that is true then I can surely claim that he had the misfortune of becoming that lucky person, and I had the luck of knowing such a lucky person.” Angela smiled at me.
“I have no clue whether you insulted or praised me by all your tricky speech. I have memorised the sentence; will analyse it later. Let me ask you something else for now. Tell me, this fog outside, this warmth of the gas fire inside, in such time today what comes to your mind?”
“What has come over you?”—with a look like this Angela stared at me. I waited a while for her answer, then said, “I was thinking about the answer to this question for the past one hour. The name of something tries in vain to surface. But I remembered it the minute I saw you.”
“What?” Angela asked.
“Angela’s eyes sparkled for a moment, but she lowered her head after that in way that it was as if I had made a marriage proposal to a girl from my country at the very first meeting! I was pissed when she lowered her head like that. I didn’t have the slightest addiction for alcohol. If Angela would not have come, after Mazumdar left I would have had an omelette with two breads for dinner because of the heavy lunch and went to bed. This was totally out of my imagination that in a weather like that it was better to spend the evening inside room sipping wine. Just because I had thought of it earlier for Angela, I manipulated the conversation towards Bosley 57. But the same girl who at one point of time had emptied my containers of tea-coffee-milk, the same girl who made a never-seen- before thing like Bosley 57 attractive to me by her constant mentioning, today she lowered her head at the mere mention of it?
She might have been upset for some other reason, that didn’t cross my mind. The thing that did cross my mind was that day I hurt her feelings. I proved myself a little responsible. Taking a tie from the cupboard I said, “Let’s do one thing, let the three of us go out. We will return after buying a Bosley 57. Let’s make the evening beautiful.”
We went out to the street. We could see each other, but couldn’t see anything a little distant. Visibility was less than ten feet. I knew a few pubs nearby, they didn’t have Bosley 57. Couldn’t even see till ten feet ahead, how would I find pubs in every other corner? I asked Angela, “So what’s the plan now?”
She said, “Let’s Keep looking.”
When I realised that we had come two miles away from the house after asking in at least eight or so pubs, then I asked Angela, “Where are you?”
“Ladbroke Grove”__ Angela moved forward saying the name nonchalantly.
“Ladbroke Grove”—Mazumdar pronounced the name in an alarmed tone, and then said in our language, “this is not a good area you know? Infamous for the fights between black and white.”
“Oh come on, even I can’t see your complexion in this fog; and the white will come to kill you after observing your face from two feet’s’ distance! And even if they did come they will go away from afar after seeing Angela’s outfit.”—I eased the tension.
“No, no, exactly because of that, I mean because of coming with a white girl, some days ago one black was beaten up here. And where will they get such a convenient place like this to run away after a fight? If he goes ten feet away after beating you he is safe. And by the time we manage to find the wine it will be others’ time to go on a walk after dinner. Tell her, Bosley 57 didn’t happen today. Let’s go back.”
Whether it was Mazumdar or my own boredom, I tried coaxing Angela to come back, but each time I noticed—she was determinate to fine out the wine bottle. I noticed—Angela had already become the girl who used to drink my tea-coffee-milk. “Oh come on; if you really want to indulge in something then it wouldn’t do to be so hopeless so early. Do young men get tired so easily? – expressing all that light insult she started to go ahead on the footpath hopping like a little girl. We didn’t have any clue the way she picked out pubs from left right and every possible lane. At last after nearly two hours when we entered my room with the bottle and a pack of chips in overcoat pockets, by then I didn’t have any urge to enjoy a misty Sunday evening.
As if the collected enthusiasm and excitement of both of us gathered in Angela’s heart. Examining my glasses she went out of the room, and came back after a while with three light, beautiful wine glasses.
I believe that the amount of alcohol a patient of weakness and tiredness consumes with his tonics will exceed the amount that has entered my stomach in different places and occasions after coming to London. When I tried to appreciate the greatness of Bosley 57, I realised it was the same—the throat burns; you can tell through which way the liquid had gone down your throat.
Twisting my face I looked up at Angela to say “What’s in there to be so crazy about!”, and I saw her staring at the wine filled glass on her hand.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Huh? No, nothing.” Angela pronounced the words in a slow and low voice; touched the brim of the glass with her lips lightly, closed her eyes, then carefully took a sip. I kept looking at her in astonishment. I was delusional for a while, was it the brim of the glass that touched her lips, or the lips of her beloved! Even after that I noticed with each sip the girl seem to sink slowly down to a mysterious silence.
Mazumdar was also engrossed in trying to empty the bottom of the glass, sitting on my bed. But I didn’t like that silence. The second time Angela picked up the bottle I asked, “You guys are enjoying that so much that we can’t even speak?”
This time Angela laughed out loud suddenly. She asked, “Don’t you like it? You will, just wait; you will like it very much.”
How else would I like it? After a while I found the whole business very funny. I started laughing. Every gesture of Mazumdar and Angela, the design of my socks, the radio which was lying there over its stomach like a stupid frog, everything was so funny that I couldn’t control my laughter even after trying so hard. Should Mazumdar’s eyes look so funny through the thick glasses of his specs? And look at the way he was holding the glass! As if somebody would snatch the glass from his hands! Poor sonny must be drunk. To sum up I fell down on my bed after the uncontrollable laugh.
Mazumdar asked, “Do you have any records of waltz music? You had one, right? Let me play that?
Without waiting for my answer he picked out a record and played the gramophone.
Ah-ha! How melodious! What a magical web of music! Was this same record lying around in my room all this while? it was; like a coconut in a monkeys room. Today the coconut shell broke out and the inside turned into a banana.
Mazumdar asked Angela, “Would you mind dancing with me a little?”
“Of course not”, Angela jumped up from her seat. I also jumped down to arrange the furniture pushing them to the walls of the room and cleared up the place and leaned flat on the wall sitting on my bed.
They were dancing. Mazumdar and Angela were dancing around the room holding each other over the waist. I didn’t know how to dance. I enrolled for the dance class in college for ten shillings, stopped going after two days. But right that instant if somebody would open a dance class, I would enrol in again for twenty shillings; and finish at least one lesson and come back before these guys complete their dance. But they wouldn’t offer dance classes now! They would offer it exactly when I find in the library the volumes of the journal I was looking for.
Mazumdar was dancing really well. I didn’t know if it was correct but he was duly turning round and round with Angela. Once I saw him getting closer to Angela and touching her body with his, and Angela instantly pushing him away to maintain the distance.
Once suddenly Angela drew away from Mazumdar’s hands and waist. She gulped down one more peg from the bottle, tightened the cork over it, said Mazumdar ‘good night’ and right there where I was lying down, touched my mouth with her lips and went away saying sweet sleep. I lay there in a shocked trance.
I was still in shock when Mazumdar left after a while! What strange game is this girl playing with me! She danced with Mazumdar restlessly, pushed him away when his body barely touched her, and when it was time to leave she bade me good bye like that! And was that a right way to wish someone a happy night? Forget happiness, how can people even sleep after that?
No. This was not done. She needed to be asked clearly what was in there in
her mind. From whatever I knew she had a little less than half a bottle of Bosley 57 in her stomach; which would be digested within the night, but wouldn’t be able to digest her method of wishing me good. So there was the need for a trial then and there. I got up from bed. The knot of the tie was getting loose; I loosened it completely with a tug. Normally if I went out wearing that in the night I should feel cold, but actually I was feeling a little hot. I put my hand on the door to go to Angela’s room, just then someone knocked. Angela.
“I forgot to wind my watch, it’s dead. Tell me the time, let me fix it.” She said.
“It’s five minute to nine. One thing Angela. Sit. I have something to tell you.”
Angela sat down.
“Why did you kiss me?” I asked.
Angela smiled after looking at me for a second then said, “It’s nothing. Leave it.”
“What do you mean it’s nothing? You kissed a sleeping guy in the night, if that’s nothing , then I have to assume that either you have some physical abnormality or you have a false presumption that I am not a normal healthy man. I think it is one kind of torture.”
Angela did not answer right away. She was caressing the label on the bottle of Bosley 57, once she opened the cork and poured down half a glass of wine, and gulped it down in one go. After some time she said, “Yes, yes, it indeed is a torture for a healthy young man. I am sorry for my behaviour.”
But I was even more pissed listening to that.
“You know what? Even I am a normal completely normal young woman. That is why even I want to exchange a little affection sometimes. I have an idea you are a good person with whom one can exchange affection. Because I had that idea and perhaps because I was too happy today, that all of a sudden I did such a thing. Please forgive me.”
“No, no; there is nothing to be forgiven…”
“No, you forgive me and end this incident here and now. Because the things which will follow will be painful for me. To be frank ,you know what? I shiver in dread when I think about what happens when people’s bodies get mixed up in the matter of love and affection. If the needle attached to the end of a soft thread you are gently fondling with pricks you, uh, unbearable pain. Let me tell you something”.
Angela brought sharpness to her throat. “I have witnessed the ugliest form of sex since I was six years old. I have never seen my real father. He died at the war. But my mother made me address one, two, three, four, five men as my father. How filthy there life was! Believe me even after calling three of them my father, loving them; I couldn’t manage to finish my schooling. Towards the end my mom herself lost count of the people who I should call dad. How monstrous can the bodily business become! I loathe all these, loathe—I will spend my life loathing.”
Angela clenched her teeth in agitation.
“The man in front of whom my mom slapped me for the very last time and drove me away from home, that very man tried to molest me in a park one day pretending to be sympathetic. I slapped him, kicked him and stabbed him with a knife. You know what happened as a result? I am a condemned person by the magistrate today. I have court order on my head; I have to present myself in the police station every month for three years to prove that I am behaving properly in the society. I won’t have a government job, can’t even get the job of a cleaner in any reputed firm.”
After a brief pause Angela said with a sharp rage, “Humans! There are no other living being on earth filthier than them. I am surely not a human being, but my bad luck; I didn’t have the chance to drink their blood even as a wear wolf.”
The little wine left out on the bottom of the bottle might had been bothering Angela, she gulped that down too.
“Huh, of course. I will always think of one boy a little differently. He was the son of the animal I stabbed. I met him outside the court on the day of my trial. He congratulated me for stabbing his father. Sitting on a pub he asked me, out of what kind of weakness I couldn’t stab his father on the neck and finish him off. He had only that disappointment. Then he said to me, “You, you woman folk repulse me.” I replied, “Even I feel disgusted by you.” “Really”—he cheered up saying that and instantly ordered two glass of Bosley 57. I never had a drink so indulgently, in such a mesmerised-absorbed way. That is the only boy—who I love in my heart. I wonder where he went! I sincerely wish to meet him! All right, whether I meet him or not. I really love him.”
Angela’s voice became low. She said after a while, “Yes indeed, I really disturbed you by that kiss. I know you will forgive me certainly. Think of it like a wild wind that shook the petals of a calm flower. You can think like that, can’t you? Yes, you can, you are a good person. You fed me, rescued me from starvation, won’t you rescue from the anguish of my heart? Well even I have disturbed you enough. From that angle I am not fit for your forgiveness. But I am also trying not to disturb you again. Look at this for instance, didn’t I have a wrist watch to wind this alarm clock! I had. I sold it a few days ago. Let me see if by that way I can survive without bothering you. It’s night already. Let me leave. Thank you very much for the wine. There is no other wine which is better than this one. And if it was not from you, I wouldn’t have had it from anyone else. Of course it’s another matter if I came across that boy again. There is not any possibility of I myself buying that. Well goodnight, goodnight my good friend.”
I was stunned. Angela forced me, “Say goodnight.”
“Huh, yes! Goodnight.”
After that Angela was not there for many days. But I tried to meet her. Morning, evening at various times I had knocked on her door, didn’t get any answer from inside. Even after nine o’clock at night I stood in front of her room and tried to guess if there was somebody inside; there was not any sign of people living inside. What happened to her? Asked Chrissie one day, he said, after that blank fire incident he didn’t even see the shadow of Angela. Running out of options, one day I decided to ask the housekeeper himself, at least he knows about everyone in the house. But the day I decided this, the very next day the housekeeper came into my room. He said, “Please don’t mind, I only asking because you are friends with Miss Rey; –Do you know where she went?”
“No, I don’t; why?”
“I have not seen her since last four weeks. She hasn’t even paid the rent. We are in a little trouble.” Though he tried very hard to be polite, there was irritation in his voice.
“Why, didn’t the cleaner Mrs. Louise meet her?”
“That’s the strange part. She says sometimes she finds the sign of someone sleeping on the bed, but never come across Miss. Rey. What to do. Ultimately the police have to be informed I guess.”
“Police? It might not be necessary! She must be busy in something important. Will see you once she is free.” I said with an alarm.
“No, no, in these matters, especially when there is a single young woman involved we have faced many difficulties before. Besides Miss. Rey is not very clean as a tenant. Let me see what I can do. Well, sorry for disturbing you. Please forgive me.” The housekeeper left saying that.
Almost fifteen days after that just before evening Angela came to my room carrying a bag and a suitcase. I almost shouted, “What have happened to you! I have not seen you for so many days!”
Keeping the two things in her hands on the carpet Angela sat down and said, “Have not seen me for so many days, and perhaps you won’t see me ever again. I came here to bid you goodbye.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I am going away from here. I gave up.” Angela said in a worn out voice. I stared at her face. Couldn’t figure out what to ask. She said again, “Listen what happened. I say everything to you at least. My modelling job is over. The drawing of my sitting and lying postures are over. They drew many pictures of my body from knees up. Now they want a standing model.”
“Why? Can’t you stand up?”
“I can. But apparently my legs don’t look good. Well, it is true, one my lower thighs is bigger than the other one. Perhaps I suffered from polio when I was a child. If the treatment would have been good then may be,__ leave all that.”
I had never noticed it before, today she showed it me so I looks. “Do they need that much perfection?”
“Absolutely—completely flawless. After all it’s about the beauty of a woman’s body, the eyes of the Artist, so many things involved. I even told the instructor—you have drawn many portraits of me sitting or lying down, but I can stand on my legs also you know—I really have the desire to see such a portrait also. Please let them draw such a portrait.___ No, the instructor didn’t agree.” She smiled weakly.
“Then where will you go now?”
“I have been looking for a job for so many days now, but of no use. Now got the part time job of a cleaner in house like this,– will get four pounds a week. So I fished for a basement room rented for one and a half pounds. You what that means, this time I moving closer to the centre of the earth.” She smiled again.
“You said, you have come to bid me farewell; do you mean you are going already?”
“But where is your luggage?”
“The house keeper kept it all. I have not paid the rent for six weeks. My one good dress remained in this suitcase. I will get it back if ever I can manage the money. I have sold everything I possibly could. Of course the house keeper tried to give me solution; he said I can stay in his room if I am too broke. There are two beds in his room, but I have to sleep with him whenever he wants.”
There was no kind of energy in her voice. I kept looking down at her things on the floor. The bag contained some tins, a brush, some dresses and an old slipper. I recalled—there was a day when I was exhausted by carrying her stuff.
She said in a weak voice, “I am not feeling like talking at all today, friend. I disturbed you a lot. I tricked you with a smiling face and ate up lots of your stuff, ; but believe me I did that just because of my unbearable hunger. Believe me that whenever I had anything in your room, those days I never had anything from anywhere else.” She paused a little and said, “I really wanted to have the two meals of the day properly. I tried so much; but couldn’t.”
Covering her eyes with her right hand Angela started weeping.
She stood up after a while. She extended her right hand to me saying, “Then,__my good friend”. I extended mine. She held my hand first with her right and then both of her hands. Her eyes welled up with tears again. She gently touched my hands with her lips raising them to her mouth. This time the tears trickled down.
I opened the door for her picking up the bag from the floor; and followed her outside.
While crossing the office of the housekeeper I asked, “Won’t you say goodbye to the housekeeper?”
Angela proceeded towards the main gate without saying anything. I saw Angela’s alarm clock shining on the housekeepers table through the open door of the office. She didn’t have the means to even, keep time.
It was foggy even that day. Carrying the bag in my hand I accompanied Angela silently along the footpath. We stopped at the bus stop near Kennington Garden. The bus came. Lifting up the suitcase onto the bus and taking the bag from my hands; Angela looked at me with a lifeless gaze. Her lips quivered; perhaps she wanted to say something. The bus started moving in the mean time. She didn’t have the chance to tell me anything balancing herself on the moving bus.
The bus moved towards the fog like a matchbox full of sticks.
(Translated from Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Assamese short story “Natghor” from the collection : Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikiar Galpa Samagra: A collection of short stories written by Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia. Guwahati-1: Banalata. 2006. Print.)
Padmashri Bhabendra Nath Saikia : This prolific writer’s large body of work includes different literary genres like short stories (many of which have been translated into English, Bengali, Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati etc.), novels, plays, children literature, lyrics, films etc. all of which enjoy great appreciation from the readers. Dr. Saikia’s contribution was instrumental in carrying Assamese Films forward into the global arena. The seven Assamese feature films that Dr. Saikia directed were all awarded the prestigious ‘Rajat Kamal’ award as the best regional films in India.