This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
We shifted to United Kingdom in 1982, after Dad won his commonwealth scholarship for his Phd in Community Medicine and later landed up with the job of a Professor, at Sussex University, close to Brighton. We lived in a small shack with two rooms to accommodate us, but luck had really rained out its soul over dad and after a couple of months he surprised me with a new house just five minutes away from the Brighton sea-shore.
My first entry into the house was greeted by the breeze of the maple tree that ruffled its leaves, in greeting to my arrival just beside the window of the room that was offered to me.
Maa perhaps would have loved it if she wouldn’t have held herself back in India to prepare for her civil service examination, for which she toiled day and night burning all the midnight oil and gave up her child as well as her husband in her obsession of reaching the summit. Her lust for power always fell heavy over her love for her daughter. Womanhood in its sterile attempts failed to impenetrate me, as I soaked in more of Dad in our days in Guwahati. So much so that sometimes it made me feel like a boy.
But now here in Brighton, work was more and time was less. Dad went to work right at 8:00 am in the morning after dropping me at East-Wood High School where I was admitted at the Fifth grade.
After coming back home Maria our house maid would cook her usual tasteless food which I ate with a hungry stomach. I had no option. And then she left to take care of her paralysed husband awaiting death in his bed. After the lunch I was left alone to do nothing, but dig holes of my yesteryears in Guwahati, which I wouldn’t call obviously happy but somehow, the place you are born and grow up to see the world for the first time, you never seem to forget.
To my silent contemplation, the maple tree would flutter its leaves as if reading my thoughts and responding to them affirmatively. I would open the closed glass window and see right through it. The canopy of the Maple tree covering my stretched out head not ever letting the sun to touch my face… I would wonder of taking a walk to the sea-shore when boredom would crawl upon its hood on me. But again step back, thinking what would dad say? How would the strangers eye me, a little girl walking alone in the beach? What if someone kidnaps me asking dad for a huge ransom? All these questions flooded in and out of my mind and for days I kept putting a cross over my desire.
But a desire once born doesn’t let you stay stable and keeps on creeping into the cavities of the brain and take the form of dreams and keeps plaguing until you reach a point of obsession.
So to satisfy my volatile emotions and my hungry heart, one evening at around 5:00 pm, I decided to lock the door and wander off to the shores of the cyclopean Brighton Sea. As I walked, my preconceived notions slowly diminished as everyone out there were enjoying by themselves and no one bothered to look at me, least of all kidnap me!
I chose one of those rude rocks wetted by the waves with their green crests and sat there, to see the sultry sunshine weaving themselves out of the golden orb. Brighton evenings were of course different from India. Here people wore shades till the sun went down mostly by 7:30 pm to 8:00 pm.
The aura gave a peaceful sense of freedom to see the huge expanse of the sea.
I would walk back home before Dad came in at 9:00 pm and with a kiss on my cheeks and dinner by Maria, He would sink back again to his puffy arm chair and read notes for the nest day’s lecture.
I would wonder of the sea and its roars asking me to me come back as if desperate to splash me with its salty evanescent spray.
Thus it became a regular treasure hunt for me; collecting pebbles intermixed with the sand, lovely silicon diamonds.
It was in one those fateful evenings when I met Christina.
“Hello! I am Christina”, she spoke with a perfect British accent.
Before replying to her greeting, I looked at her carefully. She had side-parted blond hair with a mushroom cut so that it barely fell below her neck. Her eyes were green gleaming in delight like emeralds from the deepest mines. A little taller than me and wearing a swim suit that fit perfectly to her slender figure. I assumed her to be of almost my age but her face looked much more babyish.
“Hi, I am Aditi” I replied back smiling.
“Why is you smile so wry?” She questioned me back.
I was non-plussed at her candid expression.
“Sorry, it’s just the way it is. I wish I could have helped it”
“Never mind, Where are you from Aditi?”
“I am from Guwahati, a small town in the north-east of India.”
“Wow! India… I have heard a lot about India. Is it really a magical land, where snake-charmers make snakes dance to their tunes, trees that are used to make medicine, and history bespeaks of its reminiscent era of the Mughals?”
“Where did you learn all these?” I was curious, how a little girl that too of my age knew so much about India.
“Oh my mother is an Anthropologist. She reads me out stuffs from her encyclopaedia sometimes” She smiled again as she replied, quiet non-chalantly.
“And where do you stay?” I grew more inquisitive
“Just near The Mango shop where the Brighton High School ends”
“Oh! So you must be studying there in the High School” I enquired.
“No, I paint. Mom says that education corrupts the mind and holds you in shackles, sucking the genius out of you. So I come here three times a week, to paint the Brighton Sea and its landscape, the babies and their fluffy faces, the people who are happy in their own business, the rocks that have fossilised perhaps a thousand fishes, the starfishes left behind on the shores and all.”
“How often do you come here?” She questioned without giving me a chance to meditate on what she had spoken about.
“I come here almost every day, just to drive away my loneliness. My Father works at the Sussex University and my mother is back in India, I have nothing else to do after school, so I come here and sit on this wet rock listening to the songs of the sea.”
She neither questioned or answered anymore and sat down beside me, watching the waves with dreamy eyes. She had a pencil and a paper and then she started sketching silently. I kept looking as she drew, a brown leaf fallen near my feet from the grey-oak that stood by the rocks. And then she drew a pair of feet near the brown leaf. When she completed, I realised that she had drawn my feet with the brown leaf near them. She tore the page and handed it to me. It was too beautiful to be described.
“You are truly a Genius Christina!” That’s all I could say.
That day when we parted ways I never thought which umbilical cord had pulled us together? I picked up the brown leaf from the shore and kept it inside my scrap book. And the Painting, I kept looking at its exquisiteness for an hour until dad called me for dinner and I placed the paper inside my trunk where I kept my dolls.
After that first meeting, it became a regular affair with Christina and me sitting by the rocks and watch her paint and sketch, every painting becoming better day by day. Winter came, yet we enjoyed the mist over the sea, with flocks of seagulls marking the arrival of a new ship or a boat carrying passengers from eastern islands and beyond. We would plunge into the bath of solitude and take pleasure in the afterglow of the evening light. The sea became my life and her canvas changing colours every day that the aurora borealis would paint the sky and the sea alike.
I preserved all her paintings including my own portrait, and became her antique collector.
As we grew up, I found in her more than a friend and day and night I dreamt of her.
Numerous boys in college proposed me as I reached sixteen, which I politely agreed to egress, thinking that, no one better than Christina would be able to understand me. She became a part of my soul that I carried everywhere I went.
Ultimately the time came for the separation. Christina was hired by Peter Marshal a curator from Melbourne and she left perhaps unable to face me.
Years passed and I passed my law yet I couldn’t stop dreaming about her. The childhood memories plagued my mind and like insects crawling inside my veins, it left me obsessed with bringing her back to me.
Dad insisted that it was time for me to get married and found Aditya, a handsome boy working as a microbiologist in the University. I pushed myself to get rid of my memories, but after seeing each other for about three months, I refused to the proposal. I was confused and left shattered with the ghost of my past killing me every night like a thousand knives stabbing my heart as I dreamt of the sea and Christina.
I was on the verge of losing hope with myself, when one day a letter arrived. It was a wedding invitation. Christina was getting married to Peter Marshal.
I found my world crashing down on me and the sea slapping me with harsh slaps. Tears rolled down my brown skin.
The day came and I took the next flight to Melbourne.
I sat at the last chair of the church where everyone had gathered hiding my face lest Christina see me when she entered.
And then she did. With a white gown, that swept the floor and a bunch of red roses held close to her chest she walked the aisle. Her haunting beauty pierced me inch by inch. She looked as beautiful as her paintings. A house of love with no limits. A presence more beautiful than venus or the moon.
I watched silently as the rings were exchanged. My heart pained and cried screams of horrifying madness that the claps of the people in the church out-masked.
I was unable to contain, my own incoherence. What made me cry? What made me unhappy? Perhaps I had forgotten that I was a woman.
I walked out of the church. My footsteps echoed in the empty cobble street, each echo whispering,
“Yet, in the midst of suffering, Love proceeds like a millstone, hard surfaced and straightforward.”
Finally I reached Brighton and watched the sea, silent and calm, busy in its own rhythm, but alone.
I took out the brown leaf from my scrap book, cracked and dried. I held it close to my chest and finally came to the conclusion, perhaps “Love knows no norms.”