Her head aching as though boulders churning in her brain and those eyes heavy with the denial of dawn, her legs with no shelter were numb as ice. She got up from her decrepit desk, a companion with whom she had shared meaningless dreams almost every night. The chilling wind and dust did their part on her nose, bringing continuous sneezes. She stood up from her chair with agitation and stretched herself. Letting out a loud yawn as protest against her monotonous unwilling life. No wonder Mariana Tracer is not a morning person…
Mariana glanced at her creations that lay on her desk, and kept looking at them for no particular reason or thought. Folding her arms,she thought they were hopeless. Yet she did not feel like leaving them. Like a mom looking at her problem child.
A fearful voice in her head kept telling her she would be late for work so she cleaned herself and stood before the mirror to dress up. Not quite impressed with what she saw, Mariana started to brush her shoulder length black hair. As she combed her hair she was reminded of her work at the café, like a robot being reprogrammed into work mode.
Then she started to hide her dark circles with the concealer after applying some matte lipstick of the top “La-di-da” brand worth $450. The whole idea of spending so much on her looks just to sustain her job was frustrating. But she had no choice.
After the brief makeup session she grabbed a granola bar and ran out with her handbag. She had only 40 minutes to get to her work, or else there would be another pay cut. As her boss’s face flashed before her, she ran like there is no tomorrow to the bus stop, and almost made it as the driver stopped upon seeing her.
She got on the bus and vacant seat and started to take heavy breaths. Her legs felt as though they were made to run on pointed rocks. Mariana wanted to kick her stupid shoes.ofcourse she couldn’t do that, at least she wanted to take them of for some time. There were not many passengers on the bus so she wouldn’t lose them.
Just as she lifted her heel bone, Mariana was reminded of her torn soles. What would the lady sitting before her, who is already looking at her with judgmental eyes think? So she dropped the idea.
Thirty minutes of her journey got her to the café and she opened the door causing a chiming sound. Mariana was met with a sinister glare from her boss, an elderly women in her 60s with her short silver hair wearing rounded glasses and fake teeth the lady smelt like cigarettes. Her name was Mrs. Clarence but everybody at the café called her ‘ The cottage witch’.
The name of the café was “Cottage Café” because it was small and gave a homely feel, totally different from the person who owned it. “You are late again Tracer” she said. Mariana gulped and answered “ I am sorry mam” almost holding back the urge to punch the lady’s stupid face. “For god sake JUST 5min… and the old lady is looking at me as though i stole her property papers ”thought Mariana “Can’t you see the customers? GET To WORK! and do something about that hopeless face of yours, we don’t want to scare away the few customers we have. “Yes mam” Mariana replied.
It was times like this Mariana was reminded of her anger issues. She clenched her fists till her hands became red, and began to hurt…Mrs. Clarence was not the nicest old lady in town , but she was her boss and nothing could change that. Mariana did try for other jobs, but it seemed as though the lord wanted her to suffer. So she worked there with no choice.
Ironically few days back she was going home after having a rough day at work. A fortune-teller sat outside the café claiming he would predict the future. Curious as always she had asked the man to predict her future. He told her to ask away. The question she wanted to ask “ When will I get out of this café”, so she asked the question for which he replied “ No! This is where you find fulfillment.” He said pointing towards the café. This enraged Mariana so she paid him and moved away without asking the anymore questions.
Now she jerked back to reality after hearing the old lady’s voice yelling “STOP ZONING OUT! And get to work”.Mariana got busy tending to the customers and finally at 8:00 PM she was done. Payday was a week away and the chances of getting a raise were very bleak, before leaving she wished the women good night. For which Mrs. Clarence replied “very well stay safe, good night” in a monotone voice.
No matter how much ever she denied it. There was something intriguing about the old lady. Like an unread book with a torn cover. If only she was a little nicer, it would have been easy to talk to her. With these thoughts Mariana got down from her bus and started walking to her apartment.
The sound of honking vehicles echoed in her ears. Posh restaurants with fancy lighting and greeters smiling at customers, mostly couples. Fast food centers smelling good, shopping malls with great collections, everything is so exciting and welcoming about big cities, i.e. If your pockets are dripping with cash or if you are with someone who is ready to splurge on you. If not its a haunting mirage in the desert of despair. Who else could know this better than Mariana, a girl whose idea of indulgence in luxury was at the comfort of her couch where she would gobble down chicken wings and ice cream. As far as romance and relationships were concerned, they exist in otome game apps.
The clocked ticked 11:00PM. Lost in deep thought Mariana stared at her works on the wall, and drifted to the past. She saw the paintings and portraits she had done and felt nostalgic. Art never smiled at her, but she never stopped chasing it. There were many times she felt that she was not good enough to be an artist. Mostly because of the opinions around her. As a kid Mariana never drew anything normally a kid would draw. When asked to draw things like house, car or even a tree, her pencil wouldn’t move an inch. Instead she would draw creepy under water creatures and the flying rabbit in her dream. It was as if she was from a different planet.
Mariana never drew anything which she couldn’t relate to. Most of the time people never understood what she drew. So they criticized it. Yet there was this gravity that kept pulling her back even when she wanted to leave the world of art for good. Mariana wished someday she would find a home for her creations for the world to see and accept…
The news started spreading fast. Mariana would overhear customers talking about the amazing, upcoming “Robust Café” an high end café with free Wi-Fi, great food, and to top it all attractive hosts, both men and women.
Mrs. Clarence was indeed disturbed by the news. She smoked more packs of cigars than usual, and the frequency and duration of her giving frost bites through words also increased “ don’t just stand there looking like an idiot, if there is no coffee beans get them from the store-room!”
Mariana ran into the store-room without wasting any time, she walked briskly thinking about her fate once every seat in the café would be empty due to the lack of “ robustness”. As she bent down to open a new carton of coffee bean packs , suddenly she saw something that looked like a book. Peeping at her behind the cartons. Unable to contain her curiosity, she moved the boxes and looked at it.
It was an old black journal ,Mariana took it and put it in her handbag which was on a stool outside the store-room. After which she rushed out. Later that evening it was time for her to leave. Mariana bid her usual farewell to the worried Mrs. Clarence and walked out. Suddenly a soothing but firm voice called out “ excuse me “ Mariana turned around , a man in his late 20s, wearing a coat and with brunette hair, approached her with a charming smile. “ correct me if I am wrong , but do you work for cottage café ? “ Mariana composed herself and answered “yes I do. How may I help you?” for which he replied “ Great! I am Ryan. May I have your good name ?” she replied “ Mariana Tracer” she very well knew there was a reason for him to approach her. Guys don’t go out of their way to flirt with her. Yet the whole idea was very distracting. Ryan said “ Pleased to meet you. I am the owner of the most awaited Robust Café ,I was thinking if you could be a part of our family? We do have barista and waitresses but it would really help to have an experienced hand.” Mariana surprised at the sudden offer stammered “w-well” Ryan now put on his business face and said “ Miss Tracer I am willing to pay you double of what you earn and with my abilities I will expand my café , within a year. If I find you as promising as you seem, then I will promote you to head waitress. What do you say? I will give you a week time to think about it. If you are okay with my proposal then do meet me any time .” saying so he gave her his visiting card, and left wishing her good night.
Mariana felt secure. She saw this as an opportunity to get away from the wrath of the witch. Soon enough a thought popped into her head, “ what would Mrs. Clarence do if the café suffers losses and eventually shut down? It is her only source of income” . lost in thought she slightly moved her hand resting on the couch , resulting in jerking the handbag and out fell the journal, which she had almost forgot about.
An eerie feeling crept within her. Usually she would have barged through the pages of the book like a detective on the verge of finding the murderer. But now there was this uneasy feeling in her gut, telling her not to do so. Ignoring these feelings Mariana opened the book. To her surprise the rustic page had a photo attached to it. Of a young lady , so beautiful with an alluring smile and sparkling blue eyes.
Mariana was so mesmerized she kept looking at the lady in the picture. After which she turned the page and behind it was written 5 words that literally made Mariana’s eyes fallout “ Ode to my lovely Clarence” and half of the book was filled with poems written in the praise of the lady in the picture. Mariana wholly regretted her decision of picking up the book.
On the other hand, she was all agog to know who wrote all these. Maybe her lover or husband? Upon closely looking at the book she observed few pages were torn, and the strips of torn pages could be seen near the margin. But what intrigued her the most were the ink marks that were so dark that they had pierced holes in the paper.
She could see the agitation of the poet. Further as she turned the pages the ink on the page were smudged and words were blur, the page had dried from something wet, maybe water, or tears. There were only few short poems, Mariana finished reading them. She wanted to talk to Mrs. Clarence before she left the café for good. Even if she got yelled it wouldn’t bother her.
Broken masks and wounded hearts
After a sleepless night , Mariana now stood before the café facing a sign which said “CLOSED”. She saw through the window facing the cash counter , where old lady Clarence sat. A pair of eyes looked back at her almost giving a jump scare. Mrs. Clarence pointed towards the door signaling her to come in. Mariana stepped inside and stood before the counter. Mrs. Clarence gave her the payment , and said “ you may leave for the day. The café will remain closed” Mariana took her cheque and placed the journal on the counter.
Mrs. Clarence’s eyes froze. “ Where did you find this!” she asked exasperated, Mariana told her where she found it. Mrs. Clarence was no longer composed, she started scolding Mariana “Did your parents not teach you manners? Do you take people’s stuff like your own? I am sure you shamelessly read everything, simply deplorable! ”
Mariana was startled but replied “ look mam, if I had deplorable manners this book wouldn’t be here before you. I thought this was something you wished to talk about. Guess I was wrong, have a good day” just as she turned her back to leave, she heard thumping sounds. When she looked back Mrs. Clarence was banging her desk with her hand. Her eyes filled with tears. She was embarrassed to call out, as her voice would break.
Mariana grabbed a nearby jug and glass, and poured some water for her boss to drink. Mrs. Clarence took few sips. The café was quiet. The base of the glass landed on the counter, and everything went quite again…
After few minutes of silence Mrs. Clarence spoke “ You will be joining that new café won’t you?” she said this and smiled, like the lady in the picture. That was the only notable similarity with the two ladies. Mariana let out a sigh and answered “ Yes”.
Mrs. Clarence took out a photograph from the drawer and placed it on the counter. A handsome man, in a leather coat, a stern look and bold stance, looked back. “ This is my husband Rogers Hall. We met each other forty years ago at a sweets shop.” Clarence said this with fondness in her eyes. Her eyes looked up trying to remember the past. “ we spent only two years after our wedding, one horrible night he had been out. Without telling me where, and few thugs robbed and stabbed him to death.” Mrs. Clarence narrated the whole ordeal with a straight face. It was like caressing a scar. knowing , it will no longer hurt.
Mariana felt really uncomfortable, a wave of guilt washed over the shore of anger. “ I am sorry for your loss, but you know he loved you. Look at all the poems he wrote for you” suddenly Mrs. Clarence shouted “ No! I don’t, he never told me. Perhaps if he did I didn’t have to live in this miserable hell.” Mariana continued “ B-But these poems”
“ He never wrote them.” answered Mrs. Clarence. “ I wrote all those poems By MYSELF, about MYSELF. Like a creep!” Mariana was flabbergasted. “I found the book hidden in the store-room, few days after his death. It had my photo and the writing behind it. I immediately understood he wished to fill the book with poems about me. From that day, till my hair turned grey, the only thing I think about is, what would he have written in that book.
So I tried to think like him, write like him. But everyday I felt like a creature unworthy of anything beautiful. So, instead of His thoughts I filled this book with baloney about myself.” Saying this Mrs. Clarence let out a chuckle. Soon after which she broke down…
Stroke of bad luck…
Mariana sat in the lowly lit room. Looking at her canvas, stroked her brush across it. Her palette now filled with fresh colors. Not once in her life was she so fixed on putting something on the canvas. Mariana procrastinated even for the coolest ideas that came to her. Was she an angel trying to make someone happy, or a sinner trying to overcome her culpability of misjudging someone.
With these dilemmas Mariana’s hands moved, without a pause. Sometimes they did stop, as she asked herself. “ Why do I care?” and yet the artist in her kept reminding, she was on mission to make a person believe they were worthy of something beautiful. So she shouldn’t stop until she has created something beautiful.
Her efforts continued, and she kept ripping sheets till she was satisfied. Finally her masterpiece was born. The blend of colors was subtle yet eye-catching. The young Mrs. Clarence was sitting on a chair, and the relatively young Mr. Rogers standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Both of them smiling , there rests a piece of cake in a plate on the lap of Clarence and with a knife in her hand. A window stands adjacent to them giving in sunlight which is reflected on her wedding ring, shining beautifully with the backdrop of a darker shade. They were dressed as in the photographs.
After a week of work in her house, since the day she had seen Mrs. Clarence break down, Mariana wanted to give this to her. Even though everything was done, there was this feeling of emptiness within her. Shouldn’t an artist be fulfilled after completing her work?. Mariana brushed the thought aside and got ready to leave.
With the painting in her hand, covered in a black bag and left for the café. She got down from the bus and started to walk to the café. When she arrived there, people were crowded near the café and were talking to each other. When she walked towards the crowd the voices became more clear, and her face went more pale. “ she seemed fine, but what happened?” “ poor lady”.
Mariana’s throat became dry and chest felt heavy , everything around her looked dull and colorless. She spotted an elderly man, a regular at the café, and approached him. She put her trembling hand on his shoulders, and he turned around. “ oh, did you get the news?” he asked her in a low tone . Mariana nodded her head sideways. “ Mrs. Clarence is no more, she hung herself yesterday night. The by passers saw her body through the window today morning, and called the police.”
Mariana wanted to move forward but she felt as though a pair of beastly hands held her legs, and she swallowed trying to extinguish the fire in her throat. She took heavy steps and moved forward. Only to see officers and police dogs in the vicinity. There was a DO NOT CROSS band across the café. Her face started to burn and tears filled her eyes. She fell with her knees on the ground, so did the edge of the portrait frame making a THUMP sound. Drops of rain joined the tears making her cheeks wet before the ground.
Lesson of life…
Since that doleful day, many things have changed. The portrait of Mr and Mrs Halls hangs on the wall. Many people come to the once café, for a refreshing dose of blue sky thinking and colorful presentation. Whereas people are willing to pay any amount for the most demanded piece of the couple. It is not for sale, customers are persistent about having it. Mariana stands before the painting with the letter given to her after the funeral, and the café was left in her care. “this café was a host for my hunger and screams, turn it into a home for your budding dreams.” This still made Mariana’ s eyes moist and throat dry. Others see this as a painting, a work of art. For Mariana it is an epitaph to the soul that gave life to her dreams.