I loved her from the bottom of my heart. She was my first love, my passion, my life. How strange that one can love someone so deeply, so much with a singular mind as if no one else existed in the world. Only her name was there constantly on my lips and in my heart. It looked as if she was the only human being in this world for me, everyone else, everything else was blotted out from my vision. Sometimes I repeated her name like one repeats a prayer, Joie. Her eyes held me mesmerised from the moment I set my eyes on her and she returned my love unequivocally, but not immediately. She took her own time to develop her feelings for me. There were others too who loved her for her beauty and grace. But, they didn’t stand any chance in front of my persistent and true love.
It was a moment of great pride and honour for me when she accepted my love and decided to meet me in the park. After that moment I only lived on her cares, her concerns, her soft words, on her fragrance and delicate smiles, on her gestures and words and breath, in her arms sometimes and on her benevolence. I lived in a dream, wakeful and conscious but enslaved, incarcerated and totally immersed in her love.
Eric was my good friend right through school to college, so also Wren. We were always together, the threesome, inseparable friends. Eric and I now worked in the same Chemical Laboratory where I met Joie. Wren dropped out of college and joined a musical group and went places giving performances. He had a good powerful voice and was an excellent impressionist. He could mimic any man’s voice and any sound. But, unfortunately he wasn’t a success. He fell on hard days and took to full time drinking. Eric had been in and out of love with several beautiful damsels, as he called them. Nothing lasted long enough to turn into a relationship. He ogled at Joie hungrily while pretending to be naive. Sometimes I felt he was jealous that my love for Joie remained steadfast.
“How can you sustain love like this?” he asked me once.
“There’s no question of sustaining or maintaining when you are in love. You don’t maintain your breath, do you? It happens naturally.” I said.
Later I understood that every morning he sent her a good morning wish, and unfailingly a good night message to make her think of him. But, Joie would openly compliment him in the office the next morning for his messages. And this would put a damper on him and he would immediately retort that he had this practice of sending messages to everyone in his contact list.
“But I don’t receive any good morning or good night message from you,” Sushktrita would say smilingly with a wink, leaving Eric bowled over.
A ripple of laughter would follow and Sushkrita with her huge built and rumpole nose would also rock with laughter. Eventually it all stopped.
As for me I was so much engrossed with Joie, that I wasn’t aware of anything else happening around me. There were times when I had wondered what would have happened to my position as a chemical analyst, had she not protected me in my blunders and miscalculations. She had a head on her shoulders, clear perception, the control to handle situations and people. She would instantly be at my side to correct the mistakes and take responsibility.
Mr. Brooke, the boss and his wife, Camille, in whose Chemical Laboratory we worked, appreciated her untiringly. We dealt with high value chemical elements.
One day I met Wren. We went to a local pub and spent some time together. He told me what a failure he was. “But you have done well in life, Hal,” he told me eyeing me closely. “And Joie will make your perfect partner.”
“How did you get the wind of this?” I asked him.
“Eric,” he said. “But he hasn’t changed a bit. That rouge! Do you remember how he snatched all my girls, including the one I truly loved, Kay?”
“Yes. But if Kay had truly loved you, she wouldn’t have fallen for Eric. According to me she was a confused and ambitious girl, she didn’t know herself what she wanted in life.” I said softly.
“That’s right,” he said emptying the mug of beer.
“So when are you getting married to Joie? I may not be around for long. But I wish you all the luck. You have helped me so much in life, now when I look back you were the only one who supported me unquestioningly. If I can be of any help, please don’t hesitate to tell.” he said as we parted.
How swiftly time flies when you enjoy the work, the work place with certain people around you!
Joie and I made it a point to go out at least once in a fortnight, on Saturdays. She was a great organiser. One of the picnic spots we went to was called the Valley of Flowers. She spread out a nice mat under a tree and laid out the boxes that contained sandwiches, devilled eggs, and vintage lemonade, and bottled water on the mat. The soft sun was on us and the wind hissed a melody. We sat smiling at each other. Then I took out my guitar and sang her very favourite song, not that I was a great singer but I could sing Andy Williams’ song very well. She tilted her head to one side and smiled while I sang:
Speak softly, love
And hold me warm against your heart
I feel your words
The tender trembling moments start
We’re in a world, our very own
Sharing a love that only few have ever known…
Sometimes I felt she had tears in her eyes when she heard this particular song. We ate and walked about the whole valley until sun down and returned home feeling good and all the more in love.
Eric gave up on Joie and started on Rosemary who was a new recruit, a young girl just out of college.
Joie and I got married and we went on our honeymoon trip for a fortnight. I was on a new wave of delight. I did not know whether it was day or night, or what I ate and drank. Everything was so unreal, so sublime and gloriously blissful. Nature too was at her best. It was spring time and flowers had blossomed on every tree and there was so much of greenery around, with birds singing on every branch. On our return journey I kept feeling that our honeymoon would end only when life ended for me.
We rented a small house and Joie took pains to beautify the house. We had no servants and Joie managed all the work herself. She had even beautified the entrance planting cherry coloured, white and pink bougainvilleas. I stood staring at the small plants, planted with so much love and care at the entrance.
“You know, I wanted something bright, and floriferous at the entrance. I can’t tell you how it will spread with full elegance spilling over the fencing frame, the trellis, and the arches. Just you wait and see….in a few months,” she said excitedly, looking up at me from her work and brushing the hair with the back of her palm from her cheek. God, I loved her so much. I nodded and asked her if I could be of any help. She shook her head and then said, “Okay, you can wash these garden implements, wipe them and wrap them in this cover, to be put away on the ledge.”
So I collected the small axe, sickle, pitchfork, spade, shovel, trowel, hoe, rake and fork from there and took them to the tap to wash, dry and put away. I felt good that I could help her in some way at least.
I resumed duties soon after honeymoon but she extended her leave for a week to set the house.
“Do you know what I have cooked for dinner?” she asked me one evening.
“No. Tell me what surprise is awaiting me.” I replied, unbuttoning my shirt, deeply inhaling the aroma emanating from the kitchen.
“Well, to beat the heat we begin with Mojito, and then proceed with soup and salad, followed by chicken Xacuti with rice, crowning it all with lemon souffle for dessert. How do you like it?”
“Wonderful. I must do real justice.”
“To whom? The food or me?”
“Of course to the food,” I said and she punched me on my arm.
After a wash and change over to home attire, I sat at the table where the casseroles were neatly arranged. I had a great appetite and we savoured the items. While she began putting away the things, I walked to the veranda and lit a cigarette and smoked peacefully, then joined her in cleaning the place.
To me this home was my retreat, my refuge, my heaven of fun, contentment with my family and few friends.
Eric kept to himself most of the time. We invited him for Christmas dinner and he came, jollity written all over, with a bottle of sparkling Apple Cider for Joie and Perrier-Jouët brand of champagne for both of us.
Joie cooked the traditional Christmas dinner which we relished.
“You are a wonderful cook,” he said. “I have never tasted anything like this before. Oh, by the way I wanted to compliment you for the bougainvilleas you have planted. How did they start flowering so soon?”
“Where so soon? It has taken its time. You know it is a tropical plant and needs plenty of sun for its growth, which it gets. All I did is check its undisciplined growth by trimming and pruning. Then it started blooming. Pruning always encourages blossoming and blooming. Do you like the colour combinations?”
He stared at her and nodded.
Then she asked, “Aren’t you thinking in terms of getting married and settling down?”
“I haven’t found my soul mate,” he said. “And when I do I will marry her. Don’t worry I will invite you all for my wedding.”
“You know what, the problem with you is…,” I butted in, “Your conscience is still dormant. If you want to feel something intense then your conscience should be fully awake. In your case something needs to awaken it, only then you will find real love, till then you are going to be a play boy, just chasing chicks. I tell you, Eric, you still have not understood the enormity of life. You don’t need anything great to awaken it; a light feather touch of guilt is also enough or a sudden awareness of the situation can also do the trick. Some people realise things at the age of forty.” I chuckled at my own joke. I could see from his body language that he didn’t quite savour what I said.
After he left, Joie said sweetly, “You shouldn’t have been so blunt. I could see that he didn’t take it well.”
“No, no. He won’t mind.” I said, smiling.
“But you said all this in my presence and it will make a difference.”
For a whole year we lived in such peace and contentment. Then tragedy struck. I hardly saw it coming. I remember that day so well. It was a Sunday. Joie had gone to the Mall to get something. I was at home, reading. I looked at the watch from time to time. She was gone for a long time. Then the phone rang. It was Eric on the line.
“Hey buddy,” he said, “Waiting for your wife? She’s on her way. What a time we had! I tell you, you are so lucky, man. She was a tigress in bed. I have gifted her a bottle of champagne. Enjoy it.”
I was too dumbstruck to react but I remember that was the exact moment my feet landed on earth and the surrealistic veil lifted from my eyes. My whole being shook and shuddered. I couldn’t believe my ears. Then I saw her coming with the gift box in her hand. As she came in she set the bougainvilleas straight, patting them, and coming in asked smilingly, “What happened? You don’t look well. Anything’s the matter?”
I stared at her.
She went around doing some work and my eyes never left her. She came again to me and shook me and asked what the matter was with me, why I was standing like lightning struck. I remember brushing aside her hand from my shoulder and staring into space in silence. She went for a bath, humming the tune…speak softly, love.
I felt as if I was falling into an abysmal chasm and there was nothing to hold on to.
‘Oh, no, what was happening to me?’ My thoughts were all paralysed. I wanted to feel something, anything even anger. But, I had gone numb. I lit a cigarette and sat on the sofa. She came out wiping her hair and told me I was going to burn my finger.
“You have to tell me what happened to you,” she said sitting next to me and putting her hand on my thigh. “I’m beginning to be worried.”
As she kept talking, slowly anger began to sneak into my system. The initial shock wore off. Now anger took over. I wanted to destroy something. The next moment I felt sad. I was angry with myself, with her and with him. The casual tone in which he gloated…Oh, God; I covered my face with my hand and sat in silence. She shook me again. My head shot up in anger and I said rudely, “Just leave me alone.”
She was shell-shocked. She stared at me hurt, pained, distressed and tears began to fall from her eyes. My angry feelings veered backwards and forwards between her and myself and that man. She got up and walked into the room and lit a candle and prayed. She went about doing her work. Then at last she came back and sat in front of me. “Aren’t you going for a bath?” she asked.
An unknown sadness gripped my heart and choked my breathing. I didn’t know how to deal with this situation.
The next day in the Lab. Office, Eric came and greeted me happily.
“Hey, man. Looks like you didn’t sleep at all,” he joked. “Why your wife didn’t allow you to sleep or what?”
My anger doubled and I raised an arm to hit him across the face, just then Mrs. Camille walked in. He escaped, smirking. I tried my best to avoid the staff. I didn’t want any ugly scene and least of all to let Joie down in front of others.
At home it was another scene totally. I went into a demure silence, speaking only when required. I spent my time reading, and watching the news and going out for long walks. I made it a point to go for long walks in the evenings.
Joie too stopped asking me what was wrong with me.
She began to tell me at the end of the week, “I bought your favourite champagne that day from the Mall, it was Eric who….”
“I’m not interested in your gifts. You can have it yourself.” I said.
“Does this run in your family?” she asked laughing.
This tilted my balance and I flung the remote down, which crash landed on the floor in three parts.
I couldn’t possibly continue like this balancing precariously at home and in the office too, walking on razor’s edge. I had to look for another job. This thought drove me crazy. I was haunted by the image of her sleeping with that man, in his bed! What was lacking in me as a man that she had to fulfil through him? ‘What a dirty thought.’ I told myself. All the happiness, holidays, picnics, lunches and dinners now appeared so distant and tainted. Everything had fallen apart. But we continued to live in the same house in miserable silences and monologues and pain and hurt. There were times when I acted like a mad man, when she spoke normal things, the daily routine things at lunch or dinner. I would push the plate down which would break into pieces spilling the food all around. She would then silently clean the place and apologise for breaking the silence.
Right now my marriage was going through the devastation of infidelity. I felt as if I was wronged, by her, by him, by my luck. I was too obsessed with her and how detrimental and stultifying it had been. My obsession was my problem; it prevented me from thinking objectively and solve my problems. Oh, no, what was wrong in being obsessed in love with one’s own wife? She was mine and mine only, legally and morally. I had lost the capacity to think. ‘I had to get away from these people, from this house’ I thought.
Thankfully, I got another job in the States with H-1B visa. I thanked God for this break. My plan was to quit the job and just go away, leaving Joie to herself.
At dinner I told Joie about my new job in the US. She heard me silently, her face crestfallen. I told her I would pack off in a few days. She broke down and wept inconsolably. I didn’t stir from my place to comfort her. When she was done she merely said, “Congrats.”
I felt good. A thin flicker of joy crept through me for the first time after so many days, the joy of giving her some pain, the joy of leaving her and going away.
“So much has happened without my knowing. You have changed unrecognizably. We are living in the same house and you are making your separate plans. I don’t know why you are punishing me like this. What wrong have I done to you? As much as I can remember, I have not wronged you in any way,” she said. “I cannot understand your queer behaviour. I’m going to make a special Novena to St. Jude to heal our relationship. I’m sure the Lord will resurrect love in your heart and anyway now it’s the Lent season.”
I sat in silence, looking blank.
That night I reviewed our life minutely. I couldn’t accept Joie like before. Why? Eric’s words had sunk into my brain cells irrevocably. How do I testify the veracity of his words? I cannot ask Joie bluntly whether she slept with him. Which woman would accept? And what if he had lied to me, to inflict pain as revenge? A nameless rage filled my heart. I had an instant urge to kill him for destroying my life, my peace, involving Joie in this. Something in me strongly vouched for Joie, ‘she can’t do you any harm.’ But, some other resistance mired my mind.
How many days it was now after I lost my peace? Three weeks? No, almost a fortnight. And so much had happened. Yet the problem was not resolved. Have I compounded it instead of extenuating it?
I put in my papers which was quite a shocker to my boss. Mrs. Camille called me to her cabin and enquired if everything was alright with my life.
“I see a marked change in you, Mr. Hal,” she said. “You seemed to have lost your buoyancy. Is my observation correct?”
“No. I’m alright.” I said with finality.
“I only hope you are doing the right thing,” she said.
“I mean it. I’m fine.”
She eyed me for some time, measuring my words and let me go.
I made a turn to the restroom and ran into Eric. I turned my face the other side. But he came closer and said, “Hey buddy, what’s happened to Joie? Looks like her face had caught fire and you doused it with a hammer.”
I clenched my fist and punched him in the face. He staggered and rubbed the affected area, his jaw dropped and he stared at me perplexed.
“You are hitting me, your childhood friend, for Joie?”
“You scoundrel, how dare you? She’s my wife, my life,” I said and unable to contain my anger I lunged at him again and this time the blow knocked him down. He got up and asked me to calm down.
That was when I decided to kill him.
I went for a long walk to make my plans. It was already twilight and the streets were almost empty, deserted. Suddenly, I saw a familiar figure, Wren. He was walking out of the pub. He saw me too.
“Hello there,” he called out. “So we meet again. How you doing?”
I had a sudden urge to pour out my grievance to him. But, no. Nobody can be trusted. I had to bear my cross myself.
“We should meet one of these days and talk at leisure,” I said.
“But, I don’t think that’s possible. I’m going to Nederland and may not come back,” he said and turned and walked past me. It sounded strange to me. But I was past caring.
That was the last day of Joie’s Novena. What an irony! I was going to kill Eric that night. I did not want Joie to know what I had in mind. So I decided to put her to sleep after dinner and go to Eric’s house, kill him and be back and get into bed. Joie will never come to know.
After dinner, I put three sleeping pills into her glass of milk and waited. She consumed the milk unawares, and within ten minutes fell asleep. I put off the lights and switched on the night lamp for her in the room. As I passed by the prayer room, I saw the candles still burning. She had prayed her Novena prayers and believed that everything would work well.
When I passed the front room, I saw the chairs, the sofa, the new remote, the flower vases, and all the other things she had lovingly bought to make this house a home. A great sadness seized me and with it came a fresh gust of anger. I put off the light and went out shutting the door. As I passed out of the entrance, a small thorn in the bougainvillea plant caught at my shirt sleeve. I patted the flower and moved fast. As I reached Eric’s house, my heart began to beat madly. The door was open. I went inside resolutely, to kill him. There was absolute silence and no direct light in the drawing room. I went right inside and there, Eric was on his knees, praying loudly, in front of the altar! He had lit several candles and the tiny flames illuminated part of the room. I couldn’t believe it. I stood there in the semi darkness and listened to him. He was making a confession to the Lord.
“Lord, please forgive me. I have sinned. I have destroyed my friend’s family peace just because I was jealous. I lied to Hal about his wife. She’s an angel who loves only her husband. I just happened to meet her that day in the Mall and helped her to select the brand of champagne. And called up Hal and simply bluffed to him about her, only because I was jealous. And this one act of mine has destroyed the family. Please forgive me, Lord. Please let them be together again. This I ask of you in your name. Amen.” And he crossed himself.
Before he could get up, I turned and walked past the door and out of it within seconds and without looking back I walked on. The wind was quite warm on my face. A strange peace descended on me.
‘God, what have I done to my Joie?’ I had to go and wake her up and apologise to her for my queer behaviour. I almost ran all the way. My heart was pounding hard. I had been a brute. I could have behaved differently. I could have communicated to her. I could have done a hundred different things. But, I behaved so badly. Yet, she did not complain, did not confront. She cooked and served and waited on me, made the bed and took care of every need. Managed the house with total involvement and put up with my indifference, praying for me and believing in her prayers.
I reached home and at the entrance, the bougainvilleas nodded to me in the breeze. I opened the door and went in and rushed to our bedroom. She was sleeping, peacefully. I switched on the lights and tried to wake her up. But, she slept. I sat on the bed and called out gently patting on her cheeks, “Joie, Joie, wake up, my darling, wake up. Open your eyes. Joie, listen, listen to me…Joie,” I called again. But she kept sleeping. I ran to get some water and sprinkled on her face. But she slept. There wasn’t even a movement in her. Then a strange idea occurred to me. The weirdest one! I sang the song:
Speak softly, love
And hold me warm against your heart
I feel your words
The tender trembling …..
I couldn’t continue, I choked and broke down. I cried. Then she stirred, she opened her eyes and looking at me said, “Do not go, my love.” And put her arms across my neck. I hugged her and wept. “No, I will take you and go. Please forgive me. Please darling, forgive me for all my lapses. I had been a brute.”
Then I narrated all the incidents to her in bits and pieces, in between my sobbing. She understood. She forgave.
“Let it be all history. Let’s forget it and move ahead. Thank God, I’ve got you back. I always loved you, Hal, always. Every single moment, I loved you and prayed for your conversion. The Lord has answered my prayers. That’s enough for me,” she said.
I continued to hug her and console her.
Two days later, we celebrated Easter. We had champagne and Joie baked Easter bunny cake and cooked a special Easter meal. We had a peaceful lunch together.
Then it was time for us to pack up for the States. Joie applied for a month’s leave and it was granted, she thought of sending her resignation letter later. We gave away most of the things and when we handed back the key of the house to the landlord, both of us felt nostalgic, and the landlord himself bid us a tearful adieu.
Wren turned up suddenly and came to see us off at the airport. He wished us good luck and went off.
Two Years Later……
We were on flight Air India making a trip to India. Now we were three. Our daughter, Joelle, was turning one year old. She was the centre of attraction to all the co-passengers. Someone in the next seat asked, “Why did you name her Joelle?” I said, “Because my wife is Joie and I’m Hal, so she is a combination of both of us!”
When we landed in India, it was such a great relief. Our parents had come to receive us. It was a lovely reunion. There was so much excitement in the air, so much of fussing over Joelle.
When we were comparatively relaxed, we wanted to meet our old friends, wanted to make peace with Eric, invite him over for lunch or dinner. Eric’s cell was coming switched off. Wren was not accessible. We had misplaced all the other contacts. So we decided to make a visit to the office and meet all the staff members.
When we went there, we saw everything had changed. Mr. and Mrs. Brooke had sold the Company to a German firm. Many new faces looked up at us. No one recognized us. But, luckily Sushkrita was there. She came hurriedly to meet us. She was beaming from side to side and greeted us warmly.
We enquired about Eric. Her face fell. “You don’t know?” she asked.
“What?” we asked her. “What happened to him?”
“He was murdered two years ago, just before Easter.”
“What? Oh, God! Who would want to murder him? And for what?”
“Somebody by the name Wren murdered him and surrendered to the police. Nobody knows what happened. Now that man called Wren is in Arthur Road Jail.”
“Oh God! The most unbelievable thing.”
I dropped Joie at home and decided to proceed to Arthur Road Jail. I had to meet Wren and know the facts.
I took permission from the authorities and waited; Wren showed up behind the grill. He had changed awfully. He had baggy pouches under his eyes and his hair and beard had grown wild. He greeted me heartily. I asked him whether what I heard was right.
He said, “Yes, what you heard is right. After seeing you both off at the airport safely, I surrendered to the police.”
“But why did you murder him?”
“He did not deserve to live. Do you remember Rosemary? He was dating her. Then she got pregnant and he refused to believe it was his child. She came home and nearly killed herself.”
“But what is she to you? How did you know all this?”
“She is my niece. My sister’s daughter, at least eight years younger to us, to Eric.”
“Then I went to meet him and he told me it was an accident. That he was going to get engaged to Mr and Mrs. Brooke’s daughter. He was going to inherit a lot of property through this marriage. Then I asked him what about Rosemary? He said he could get her child aborted. I hit him hard. He said he was a big man now. He laughed and said he had taken revenge on you for insulting him after inviting him for Christmas. He said he had destroyed your peace forever. That he was powerful enough to do what he wanted. So I decided I should kill him for all his unpardonable wrong doings. I went to the pub and drank. When I came out I saw you. I told you I was going to Nederland. I saw how pale and distraught you looked.
Then two days before Easter I went to his house and told him to confess the truth to you. He declined. He said you had hit him and knocked him down in the office. He never would tell the truth to you and that you should suffer in your suspicion. I asked him to marry Rosemary. He refused saying he did not love her anymore and that it was all over between them. In my anger, I struck him on his head so severely that he died instantly. Internal injury, I suppose. But, not a drop of blood fell. Then I carried him to his bed room and laid him there, on his bed.”
“But that’s not true, I went to his house and saw with my own eyes how he prayed and confessed to the Lord. I too went there with the intention of killing him.”
“Sometimes what the eyes see and what the ears hear may not be true.”
“What do you mean?”
“After killing him, I made my way to your house to tell you all this. But I saw you coming out and followed you. You were heading to Eric’s house. I guessed that you were going to confront him. So even before you could reach, I went there and wore his jacket and lit all the candles and waited for you to reach there. As soon as I heard your footsteps, I began to pray in his voice. Don’t you remember I’m an impressionist? I can mimic any man’s voice. What is Eric to me? And you thought it was Eric who prayed and confessed to the Lord. I did like this because I did not want you to find out that he’s dead or be unnecessarily implicated in his murder. So I thought this would be a better option to misguide you. If you had still waited to talk with Eric, I would have spoken without getting up.
But luckily for me, you charged out of the house. I followed you till your house and saw you waking up Joie; I saw through the window. I didn’t know anyone could sing at such times. But you have a good voice! Well, then I saw both of you reconciled. And I also learnt that you were leaving India. So after seeing you both safely out of India, I went and surrendered. I have repaid my indebtedness to you.”
“And I thought Eric’s conscience was awakened.”
“He was evil personified. I have no regrets. You can now go and live in peace. God Bless.”
I held the grill tightly fighting back my tears. I did not know how to thank him; he had sacrificed his life so that we could live in peace. His imitated voice had wiped out all doubts and suspicion from my mind and restored peace in me that night. I shall ever be grateful to him for that.
“May God give His peace to you, Wren.” I said.
Wren turned and walked away without any expression. I waited till his tall hefty figure disappeared through the small door. The gates closed behind me and I found myself out breathing fresh and peaceful air.