Mrs. Terrel’s cab was speeding along the highway to their farm house situated in the hinterland. Now she felt she should not have come alone all the way from city in such a hurry, almost impulsively. But, she had to get all the things the boys had forgotten last time when they were vacationing in the farm house. She herself had forgotten her wedding ring in the bathroom cabinet and was feeling quite restless without it. Her very purpose of this hurried visit was to get her wedding ring back from where she had left it.
It was early July and after a stint of heavy rain, the sun had come out and for the last two days, it had been bright and sunny. But now, in this part of the suburbs it was raining cats and dogs and it turned her stomach. The sound of the rain on the roof of the cab made her feel gloomy. Was it madness to have come on a day like this? If she had to wait till their next visit to get her ring, she should wait for another six months. ‘No, No, I think I’m right. I cannot wait for six long months to find my ring. There would be many get-togethers, prayer meetings and Mrs Paisley would endlessly question her about the missing ring on her finger and start spinning stories about an un-existing crack in their married life; Moreover, the boys need their ear phones and speakers and their iPod. Even John had left his wrist watch behind and was quite lost without it.’
She had already covered a hundred kms and there still lay around 250 kms more to bridge before she reached her destination. Her perception of the distance belied her discernment of it.
She could have asked her son Felix or Abel to accompany her and one of them would have definitely escorted her, though grudgingly not wanting to miss their school. But, she came away thinking it would just pass away as another day and the four of them would be happy at the dining table at night, with all their personal things retrieved and salvaged.
Their farm house overlooked the sea. The Terrels visited it twice a year, once in May and in December. They would spend full three weeks in the luxury of nature all around and the sea at a distance.
She tried the caretaker Mr. Leni’s number again and like before, it was coming out of coverage area. She thought of giving him a piece of her mind after reaching the place. Her plan was to collect all the things and take the caretaker’s help in getting a cab to return home. It all seemed so simple and uncomplicated.
They were now passing through a village and she could get the smell of smoke curling through the chimneys and the whiff of cow dung in the wet air. She had a nose for smells! She could immediately identify any smell. Some friends called her ‘sniffer’ all in fun.
She shifted uneasily in her seat. At last, after a nerve-wracking journey, the cab turned into the familiar street. It had stopped raining and the sunlight glittered on the tree tops and on the wet and sopping pavements. A wet cat sat on a low parapet and mewed. She could hear the sound of the sea, the waves breaking on the shores. “Please stop,” she told the taxi driver and asked how much she had to pay. She paid and began walking towards the closed gates of her bungalow. Then on an impulse, she turned round to ask the taxi driver if he could wait for some time. But the taxi had already reversed and started moving away in speed.
Not a single human being was there on the road or even anywhere nearby. She opened the gate and walked inside the pathway to the bungalow. She looked out for the caretaker and called out his name twice or thrice. But there was no response. ‘Where could he have disappeared like this, without informing?’ she thought as she slid the key into the lock and turned it. The lock opened. She gave the door a push with her hand. As she stepped in, murky, moist, humid air assailed her nostrils. She walked in and switched on the lights in the drawing room and sat on the sofa. Just a month back they all had been here and had so much excitement and fun. Her brother William and his wife and kids were also with them. What fun the children had!
As she sat there, she realized there was one other smell that lingered there along with the moist smell. She sniffed deeply. Yes, it was a very different smell. What was it? She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell reminded her of something. But what? She could not associate it with anything. But it was there lingering. She checked the room with her eyes. Everything seemed in place as they had left. There was a film of dust on the window sill; in fact every object wore a film of dust. ‘Why, Mr. Leni had not cleaned the place at all! What was he doing all these days? And where did he disappear?’
It was her idea to buy this farm house as a retreat for the family. It was very large and spacious. The ground floor had three bedrooms with attached bathrooms, a kitchen, dining hall and drawing room. On the first floor too they had three bedrooms with attached bathrooms, all very dated in design. And above that they had a closed terrace.
She sat on the sofa wondering what was amiss. The strange smell which pervaded the air was the cause of her uneasiness. She inhaled deeply again and this time all of a sudden her brain recognised it to be ‘scented tobacco.’ Immediately a chill ran down her spine. She was now terrified to go to the boys’ room. What if she opened the door and saw a stranger in the room? What if someone suddenly made an appearance? She went upstairs in a trice to her own bedroom where she and John had settled last time. The room lent her some solace. She rushed to the bathroom and opened the cabinet. The ring was there. She grabbed it and wore it on her finger and breathed a sigh of relief. She opened the tap to wash her hands. But, the water dripped and stopped. She wondered how the tank could be empty, when no one used the water.
She came back and opened the window letting in fresh air. She sat on the bed and began to arrange her thoughts. Why was she feeling so edgy? She needed to calm down.
The scented tobacco…. it was what Andy smoked. Andy was Andrew, her boyfriend when they were in college. She could not recall how they had become friends. But, her parents and her brother disapproved of him and his uncanny habits. Andy’s father owned a tobacco factory and Andy was quite proud to smoke the most expensive and rare scented tobacco cigarette.
“Meg,” he would say, “Do you know how much I love you?”
“Well then please understand that I love you the most in this bad world.”
He always called the world ‘bad.’ Every time she asked him why he called it so, he would give a different reason.
She was too young to understand anything about a ‘skewed mind.’ Sometimes it annoyed her. When they walked together in the college campus, he would walk beside her silently for some time and then suddenly jump up and pull a leaf from a tree and crush it and throw it on the ground.
There she was, Meg, a well protected and much loved girl in a baby pink sweater, feeling embarrassed by his actions, blushing red when other students laughed at his pranks and called him a ‘kid’. He would then kick a pebble and run behind it to kick it again till it ended up in a ditch.
“Please stop doing such things and behave your age, Andy,” she would tell him kindly.
One day he asked her to go with him to the coffee shop. She agreed and went with him. On the way he saw a heavy-eyed old lady slowly pushing a pram, the baby was fast asleep in it. Andy walked over to her and gave a hard push to the pram which sprang to life and swiftly rushed on the road without any direction. The old lady ran screaming behind the pram, and the traffic went zigzag and came to halt one by one applying sudden screeching brakes. The pram hit against the footpath and stopped after making a circle, tilting in a dance, taking in the brunt of the impact.
Andy laughed at the sight, holding his stomach. Meg ran all the way to pick the baby from the pram. A crowd gathered and a commotion ensued. The baby was still asleep but now it woke up and began to cry. The old lady accused Andy and threatened to hand him over to the police. Andy said he did it for fun. Meg apologised for everything, on his behalf and finally the crowd dispersed and the old lady went her way.
Meg demanded an explanation as to why he did it. He said to teach the old woman a bitter lesson because she was walking with her eyes closed! Meg was contemptuous of his ways and refused to have coffee with him. She hailed a taxi and got in. Andy ran behind her saying sorry, but Meg was past hearing. She felt ashamed of herself.
She refused to entertain him thereafter. She did not want to be a party to all his dangerous and silly activities or be a laughing stock in college and outside too. She concentrated on her forthcoming examinations and studied at home. Soon after the exams she went to Italy with her family, her father had an assignment and they were in fact on an official tour for a month. It was a great welcome change for her and a big relief.
After the results, Andy came to her house to bid her goodbye. He was going to Australia for higher studies. Meg, taking pity on him walked with him with folded arms, in her garden. They stood under a tree and Andy asked her if she was still angry with him. She said she did not know. He tried to take her hand in his and gently stroked it and gave it a hard squeeze. Meg pulled her hand away in disgust. He smiled and lit his scented cigarette and blew smoke in her face. She hated him. He said after his studies he would come back and marry her. Meg shuddered at the thought of marrying him. He said, “Yes, I know you are feeling a bit excited at the thought of marrying me.”
She said there was nothing between them except a simple friendship and now she wasn’t even sure if it was there. But, Andy refused to believe it and asserted that he loved her and if he married, it would be only her. He bent down and quickly kissed her on her cheek. She brushed it with the back of her palm. He tried to lift her chin with his index finger to kiss her but she turned her face away and pushed him hard. She said categorically that she did not love him at all and that she would marry a man of her parents’ choice. He need not fancy anything between them. So saying she picked her long skirt and ran back home and shut the door with a bang.
Andy never got in touch with her after that meeting. Years passed and she almost forgot him. She got a good job in a Financial Institution and there she met John. He was a man of great wisdom and poise. Their friendship was approved by her parents, and it finally culminated in their marriage.
The two of them settled down in one of the sea facing flats in the city, where life was absolutely blissful. Both of them worked in the same place and years piled up and they had two lovely sons. It was only a few years back they built a farm house in the interior suburbs where land was available cheaply, more as an investment. But, it turned out that the farm house became their holiday home, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, which they grew to love more and more.
She would have moved about freely in the house but for the scented-tobacco smell which she felt was an intrusion into her private life. She now wanted to dismiss the odour of the burnt tobacco and all other sordid memories associated with the smell. She picked up John’s wrist watch which he had left on the side table of their double bed. She looked out for her hand bag but it wasn’t there. She had left it downstairs and had come up with the keys instead, in her fright.
Just then she heard the sound of heavy boots slowly climbing the steps, one at a time. At first she thought it was her fancy playing mischief, but the footsteps became louder and clearer. She ran to the door in total fright and shut it firmly bolting and latching the door and standing against it with a thudding heart. The footsteps stopped abruptly.
“Oh, God!” she repeated. “Please help me.”
Her hands and legs were shaking. Terror gripped her heart. How would she get out of the house? Her cell was in her handbag and her bag was downstairs. There was no telephone connection in this house. For a long time she stood immobilised, till her heart stabilized its beats.
Then slowly she wobbled her way to the window hoping to see some human beings on the road, so that she could call out to someone to help her. The sun light was beginning to fade, though it was only around 4 PM. The dark clouds began to thicken in the sky. The air was saturated with vapour. Then all of a sudden a cloud cleared and a dim light shone from the heavens. Two school boys were going towards the sea side. She called out to them, “Excuse me, here kids, excuse me,” and they looked up and stopped. “Please help me, suddenly I have taken ill. Please help me.”
The boys came in through the gate and stood below the window. They looked radiant and cheerful. One of them asked looking up, “Yes, Madam, what happened?”
“I want you boys to open the door and come up and give me a helping hand to come down. I have taken ill suddenly. Also please help me to get a taxi. Here is the key to this house,” she said and threw the key bunch down. The boy caught it and smiled. They proceeded towards the door. Mrs. Terrel thanked God for this help.
They opened the door and came as far as the foot of the staircase and called out, “You can come down Madam, all is fine here.”
She came out of the room and saw the two boys standing at the foot of the staircase and she slowly started coming down. As soon as she came down, the boys made an about turn and ran out of the house. She called after them, and began to go behind them shouting for the key.
A gruff voice said, “Don’t bother about the keys. They are safe with me. I only asked the boys to go out as soon as you came down. They just obeyed me.”
Mrs. Terrel swung round and saw a figure standing there in the dim light. He was in a long coat with collars turned up. His hat was pulled down and he was wearing goggles. Mrs. Terrel let out a cry and almost fainted. She fell on the step; then gently rested her head on the wall of the railing. Beads of sweat streamed from her forehead. Her heart had lost its rhythm.
The man removed his hat and goggles and switched on all the lights. He removed his coat and threw it on the sofa.
“There you are, Meg.” he said. “Did I not tell you, I will come back and marry you? I have kept my word. I’m back and I’ll marry you and you will live with me the rest of your life. I promise you, you will be happy with me.”
She looked up slowly and said, “I’m married and have two kids. Please spare me. Let me go.”
“How can I, Meg? I have always loved you and waited for you. I went to the States from Australia because I couldn’t study. I tried my best to study but I couldn’t. I did many odd jobs in the US and I was hired as a hustler. Finally, I owned the cathouse. Every female was a Meg, in my fantasy. You probably have no idea what that means to you, do you? I tell you even at 44 you look so attractive and not a day more than 30. I had been in and out of glasshouse several times and life had been very hard for me. But all through that I have loved you. And all the while you had been here with your husband, safely cushioned in his nest enjoying life to the hilt. Did you even once think of me?”
She gradually looked up and faced him. The Andy she once knew and the Andy who was standing here were two different people, except for the voice. The man in front of her looked bald, with his front teeth missing, so burnt up by sun and dried up by wind and soaked by rain, his sagging face and neck were so black, coloured with whiskey and vodka and tobacco. She looked away from him as hurriedly as she could.
Outside the rain was lashing down and the wind was tearing at the panes. She had no strength to move. She wanted water badly, but dared not ask him.
He continued, “I came back from the States and searched for you. I had been stalking you for the last few months and waiting for an opportune moment to get close to you. And it’s here in this farm house I had been staying for the last fortnight. There’s plenty of money in the west, you can’t imagine. I will be taking back with me some willing floozy chicks. But you will be a special one only for me.”
“You are sick. Mentally sick. Please let me go. You go and lead your life the way you want, but please don’t disrupt my life. I love my husband and kids and my home.“
“You do? That scamp of a man who stole you from me? You love him and not me? And you say I’m mentally sick?”
So saying, he picked up her handbag and flung it at her in a bid to hurt her, but she was grateful for that action, for her cell was in it. She instinctively engaged him in conversation, all the while staring at him. However, she gently acted as if she was fiddling with her bag and managed to open the zip noiselessly. She put her hand in and searched for her cell. It was there. She switched it on and pressed 100. The cell was already in silent mode. The cell began to vibrate and she knew there was someone at the other end, answering her.
“How did the caretaker allow you to stay here?”
“Who’s he to allow me? That lowlife charlatan threatened to take me to the police. He refused the handsome money I offered him and put up a fight, on your behalf. Does he too love you, eh? I had no option but to throttle him to death and dump his body in the tank up in the terrace. Now there’s where he’s lying. Aren’t I smart? Tonight we are leaving. And you will be mine forever. When I feel done with you, you will be for the parties. Oh! What fun!”
“Andy for God’s sake let me go. Please. My kids would have come back from school and would be alarmed at not finding me. My husband will also return home in an hour from now and not finding me will start searching, he might even go to the police.”
“Your husband won’t bugger your kids?”
“What? I don’t understand your terms.”
“I tell you, you all are born lucky. I used to be a victim of many atrocities in my childhood. And whatever I had been subjected to, I have returned ten times more to the society. Now I want to retire with you. My one desire is to see you strip and come to me coyly.”
“Oh, Lord. Stop it Andy, you need a psychiatrist not me. You are sick.”
“A psychiatrist eh? You are enough to cure me.”
So saying, he took a step toward her. She screamed. The rapidly heightening nervousness lent her some strength to get up and throw something at him. She picked up the lock and threw it at him. It hit his head and he staggered a bit. She ran towards the door and managed to open it. But he came hurriedly and caught her arm and pulled her to him. “Wow, what homely fragrance.” he said, burying his wet nose into her nape.
Then turning from her face, he saw the contents of her handbag strewn on the ground.
“So you had been calling up someone. Let’s see who it is,” he said and checked the dialled number. “The police? Very smart. They will never get to me.”
He placed the cell on the table and looked at it. It began to vibrate non-stop. ‘It could be John, or Felix or Abel,’ she thought.
Andy threw the cell with a satanic force and it hit the wall and fell to the ground in several pieces. “Now come with me to bed,” he said and began to drag her along. Mrs Terrel screamed and shrieked and fell down, totally unconscious.
There were voices in the room. Someone was sprinkling water on her face. Mrs. Terrel opened her eyes and saw John’s face gazing down at her, worried and tense. Her children were rallying around her calling out “Mommy.”
She came to consciousness and sat up slowly. Even William was standing there with a frown and there was one another man…a doctor. The doctor was standing close to her with his stethoscope in hand.
John asked her gently, “How are you feeling, Megi?”
She asked, “What happened? Where am I?”
“Well, you are in the farm house. You came here without even informing us. What was the urgency?”
“I wanted to collect all the things we had left behind in our last visit. Among the other things, there was my wedding ring.” So saying she looked at her finger. The ring was not there. Again panic hit her and her mouth went dry.
“Well, well, doesn’t matter. You haven’t eaten anything since morning. Here I have packed some sandwiches for you and some hot coffee in this thermos. Please have it,” said John.
She sat up and had a slice of bread and some hot coffee. She felt better.
“Is Andy arrested?” she asked.
“Who? From where did he come? And why should he be arrested?” asked William.
“He told me that he throttled the caretaker to death and dumped his body in the tank up in the terrace.”
“No, Meg, you are seriously mistaken. It is the caretaker who called us up in the morning to inform about your visit and how you collapsed in a faint.”
“I don’t understand,” muttered Meg.
“Yes, Megi, the caretaker, Mr. Leni has gone to get medicines. He will be here in a few minutes. We will hear from him what happened.”
The doctor who was silent all the while said, “It looks like you were already in tension, and the hollowness of the house, also the fear of something in your mind with all the saturated voices and habits and footsteps and memories played havoc on your mind and you just collapsed at seeing something. This is not uncommon.”
Just then the caretaker, Mr. Leni walked in with the medicines. He was wearing a long raincoat and a hat. He smiled at her and asked, “So how are you, Madum?”
Meg was confused. She said weakly, “I called on your number several times, but it was coming out of coverage area. Where were you when I came in?”
“Madum, water had gotten into my cell and it’s not working. I got myself a new mobile and SIM. When you came, I was in the backyard attending to the plants. Then I heard the door opening and shutting, I saw it was you and went back to continue with my work. When I finished, I came in from the back gate and saw you were sniffing and sniffing the air, turning in all directions, craning your neck. Then you saw me. You were aghast. You screamed and fell unconscious. So I rushed to call the doctor but the wheels of my jeep got stuck in the marsh and it took so long to get it out. In the meantime, I called up your husband and William Sir. These are the things that happened.”
Felix and Abel were running up and down calling out to each other.
“I got my ear phones.”
“And the speakers.”
“Look the iPod is here.”
“Take the charger.”
“Now where had you forgotten your ring?” John asked.
“In the cabinet up in the bathroom.”
“Common, Meg, feel strong. There’s nothing to be worried. Get up and fetch your ring yourself,” said William.
Meg got up and slowly walked towards the staircase and turned back to see John. John got up and walked to her and put his arm around her waist and both went up and Meg got her ring. She saw the window. It was closed. There was no sign of her having visited that room earlier. John took his wrist watch from the drawer of the side table.
They came down. The doctor was suddenly in a hurry to go. William escorted him till outside. The doctor said, “See it is very clear, her nerves were very taut. Something triggered some fear that was lying hidden in her sub-conscious mind. And she fainted out of sheer fright and anxiety and in her sub-conscious mind has played out all her fears. She’s okay now and with the pills I have given, she will fully recover. She needs good rest. That’s all.”
“Thank you doctor.” said William.
It was now time for them to go home. Mrs. Terrel’s eyes fell on her handbag. She quickly checked it. Her cell was intact.
They got into the car. Mr. Leni came to see them off till the gate. He did not think it necessary to tell them that a few days earlier a tall, handsome, rich man had come from abroad to meet and befriend him, paid him handsomely for a night’s stay in the boy’s room, also gifted him with a packet of scented tobacco cigarettes. There were two beautiful young girls with him and that he himself had spent that night with one of the girls. What a lovely, memorable time he had with that girl and what a night it was!
In the car, the boys played the songs from their iPod. They were happy and excited about this unexpected visit to the farm house. Suddenly the next song that came was an old popular song, so many years out of date, ‘I love you, Baby.. …I can’t get you out of my mind.’
Meg caught her breath; this was Andy’s favourite song. How did this song come into the boy’s iPod? And the boys themselves were asking “Hey what song is this? How did this come into our collection? This is Mummy’s time’s song.”
And laughing they heard it. William turned back from the driver’s seat to see Meg. She was resting her head on John’s shoulder with her eyes closed.