This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
6:30 p.m. Pizza Parlour.
She checked the message on her cellphone for the nth time and looked at the white face of the slim watch strapped to her left wrist. A gift from her husband, she thought absent-mindedly. She felt far removed from it all, cut off from all relationships. Almost time. Her heart had not stopped racing since she had got the message two days back. Each split second since then had crawled. But somehow, she had managed to still herself and compose her face. She had waited patiently for 48 hours. What was that in comparison with 23 years of searching, longing, imagining? Well, here she was, and only five minutes more.
Lata had always been punctual. Not a minute early, nor a second late. She would be on time. Shefali adjusted her sunglasses on top of her head and tapped on her handbag. No one could imagine the whirlwind of emotions churning through her. A sleek, black limo stopped and a red-heeled foot stepped out. With a sharp intake of breath, Shefali waited for the rest of the body to emerge.
“Oh my God! You look the same as ever, Shefu.” Lata’s voice was as musical as before.
Shefali smiled her slow calm smile. But Lata did not notice that it did not quite reach her eyes.
“Well, you look great…as usual, Lata.”
“Let’s go in and binge. You know I love pizza. And Samarendra just detests it. Of course he gets the most elaborate of meals ordered from the Taj or Sheraton, but you know… how I love junk food…
Oh thank you.”
This last bit was addressed to the waiter who held out the chair for her as Lata gave a dazzling smile to the people in general while she made herself comfortable. Shefali pulled out a chair and sat down by herself. She waited until she was given a menu card and then pushed it towards Lata.
“You order. I eat pizzas every other day, I can have anything.”
“Okay, tops, let me see. Pepperoni…ummm… let’s have barbecue chicken topping, with jalapeno and…. and double the cheese.”
“So.. Shefu….tell me where you are working.”
“I am working at the UNICEF.”
“Okay… right….I forgot.”
There was an uneasy silence that stretched between them like a taut string.
“I need to go to the Ladies’ Room.”
Before the mirror, Shefali stared at her reflection and saw the lurking fear in the depth of her eyes. A fear that only she knew of. The fear that accompanies guilt. The fear that one has when planning out a crime for the first time. She opened the tap and let the frothy white stream of water run through her fingers. It felt like a gentle caress and she shuddered. With a shrug, she closed the tap and retouched her lips with gloss. Her thoughts ran riot as she went back to that morning 20 years ago.
Shefali was rewarded with the sudden start that Lata gave.
“She’s fine. Works as an assistant to Prof. Narula, you know…. the famous architect in Bangalore.”
“What is it?”
Shefali noted with satisfaction the sudden unease that peered beneath the dark false eyelashes, the faint line creasing her friend’s forehead for an instant before she could compose herself and begin stirring the coffee.
Lata kept stirring. Perhaps the whirl in her cup reminding her of the eddy at sea that day. Shefali could not help staring at Lata’s cup. In the murky brown liquid topped with white foam which collected at the rim. She could see the image of her daughter’s face bobbing up and down.
They had been six and were playing on the beach, collecting pebbles and shells. It was not a sandy shore, but a rocky one, and they had plenty to do. Sanyukta and Sharmishta, or Mishti, as she was called, were friends since they were born. Just as their mothers were. Every Saturday morning, the two mothers would pack some light snacks and go to the beach with them. The kids would play while the two friends gossiped.
That day, Lata had been alone. Shefali was down with viral fever and could not get up. Lata offered to take both the children to the beach. Shefali agreed, looking forward to some rest.
And then, it was all over.
The pounding on the door had woken her up. Shefali glanced at the clock. Just twelve noon. She had slept for the whole morning. Where? What? What was that noise? She opened the door and stared with groggy eyes at Lata’s husband and hers, followed by Lata herself. And her husband carried the lifeless body of Mishti. Her Mishti.
“Are you okay?”
Lata was looking at her with narrowed eyes.
Shefali tasted the rising gall, and stared at the sunflower yellow plate on the blue table cover. Sea blue. The sea used to be so blue. And the two girls so cute in their little swimming costumes sitting hunched with heads close together in childish fascination at the bright colours of their collected treasures, the soft breeze blowing their wispy hair about their faces, and the gentle waves kissing their tiny feet.
In those swirling blues, a little arm must have risen again and again and the water gushed into her gasping mouth and the lungs collapsed under their own weight while she had been blissfully asleep in her bedroom. Her spine tingled as she made herself come out of her reverie in which she dwelt most of the time; and told herself that her Mishti was no more.
It had taken nine years at the institution with constant counselling, psychotherapy and sleep-inducing drugs – she had borne her pain at last and come out of it – an embittered soul.
She knew not what she hated more: that she had not gone to the beach herself or that it was not Sanyukta who had drowned. She could not help constructing the events in her mind. How was it that the accident happened that very day… that one day she had not gone? How was it that Sanyukta had survived despite Mishti being the stronger swimmer of the two? How was it that Lata’s attention had wavered so long that her daughter was carried far into the sea? Surely Sanyukta must have drawn Lata’s attention to it? What had really occurred that day? She had not listened when Lata had tried to tell her those years back. She had been in too much agony.
“What had really happened, Lata?
“You heard me. You knew I would ask you one day. You must have been prepared.”
“I had told you then, Shefali. I was on the phone and then I went to get some cold juices for the girls.”
“And left them unattended?”
“Haven’t we done that earlier? Shefali, you can’t blame me for that… You know it wasn’t my fault.. not was it Sanya’s.”
“I know it wasn’t Sanyukta’s fault.”
“You mean, it was mine? Haven’t I chastised myself enough all these years?”
“Oh, it was not you alone who suffered!”
“Really! What if Sanyukta had been carried out at sea that day? Wouldn’t you have blamed me?”
“Never, Shefu, never. Ummm.. at least I don’t think so.”
“See… you are not so sure.”
Lata pursed up her lips. So that’s why Shefali wanted to meet her after so many years. She had taken so much trouble to search for her on the internet, through social networking sites, stalked her, waited for her all these years.
Lata felt a sudden choking sensation in her throat. She felt something on her tongue and spat it out. She screamed and pushed back her chair, upsetting it. Everyone was staring at her.
Between chokes, she rounded on Shefali.
“Don’t you know I have an allergy to olives?”
“Oh, I forgot.”
“But I specially ordered my pizza without olives! How did that come in my mouth? You!”
Froth came out of her mouth as she slipped in a heap onto the floor.
The small bowl of pickled olives lay overturned on the blue tablecloth. Strangely, to Shefali, they seemed like the pebbles Mishti used to collect.
© Monika Pant