The tape recorder was empty.
He eased himself down on his rocking chair and breathed out a sigh of relief as he set his walking stick beside him. Leaning back, he closed his eyes.
Life was coming to an end for him. He could feel it in his bones. It would not be long before he joined his wife again, the woman who was the love of his life. He remembered how the previous month she had set out to go to a party, one that she kept begging him to go to with her. He also remembered how he faked a headache and asked her to carry on without him. He watched as she walked out that door late that night and never came back. He felt as though he was to blame.
“I miss you, my dear,” he whispered, trying hard not to cry. “Why did you have to leave me on our anniversary?”
Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a tape titled ‘Our Lives’ and slid it into the tape recorder. With trembling fingers, he pressed play and instantly, the room filled with her beautiful voice.
‘This is for you, my husband’, the tape started, and he heard her nervous chuckle. ‘This is a tape I made for you on my sixtieth birthday. Remember how we decided that we would each leave a tape behind for after one of us… passed, so that the one left living would not be alone? I initially thought it was a silly idea, but now I realise how wonderful it is. And if you are listening to it right now, then it must mean I am gone, right? I broke my promise and left you here…’
He shuddered at the way her voice shook as she said those words. His restraint broke and the tears escaped his eyes. Their love was deep, it always had been and the reminiscence was often bitter because he could not carry on alone. The one thing he hated the most about death was the memories it often left behind for the living to struggle with. That was exactly what was happening to him at the moment and he did not like feeling so empty. His heart had a hole that only seemed complete when she was around. Now, it was unfixable.
In the background, she continued…
‘I was thinking about the time we first met, love, back when everything was perfect, or at least better than it is now. I miss the days when the internet had not invaded our privacy and the ringing phones had not replaced the laughter in our voices. I miss how romantic eye contact used to be and how beautiful it was to sit in silence staring at nothing but the hope of our futures lying ahead of us. But mostly, I miss that I was able to spend it all with you. Ours was true love no matter what anyone said. We both knew, even if they didn’t, that we would last, that we could prove everyone wrong. Despite our parents disowning us, despite the troubles we faced and the hardships we went through, we can look back now and say that it was worth it all. At least, I can say that. What about you? Do you feel the same way?’
Yes, he wanted to shout. Yes, he did. He was shocked by how in his tape to her, he had talked about the same thing, though not with as much perfection as she managed. She was, after all, a writer and in all senses of that word, she knew how to make anything sound absolutely brilliant. But he had never told her that, had he? He had never appreciated her hard work or her enthusiasm for life. He never told her he loved her or that he was grateful to her. But somehow, she always knew. She was always there for him and that was what mattered the most to her. He wished she got to listen to his tape. It was the only decent thing he had ever done.
Snapping away from his thoughts he got back to her voice.
‘The thing about life is that we never know when or how it is going to end, do we? So we need to be prepared for the worst and do all that we can to make sure that we have nothing to be sorry about. Oh, who am I kidding? All this never really happens. For starters, I do have regrets. I always wanted to stroll down the beach with you, my old man. You with your walking stick and me with my hunched back, romantic as ever with our wrinkled skins and partial blindness… It would be my dream coming true. Another regret of mine is not being able to see my parents after our marriage. Not having kids made that worse, don’t you think? We didn’t get the chance to experience the pain that we put our parents through, just so karma could get us back. I know I am chuckling about it right now but my heart is actually breaking on the inside. Is that how you feel right now? Broken inside?’
His phone began to ring. But he didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. He thought back to the times when they had been trying to have children. It never really worked out for them and after the first two miscarriages he knew he could never put her through that again. That was when they had stopped trying. It was pointless and they both knew it. They were content with each other and nothing else seemed to matter.
‘We can’t really fight impending doom, can we? We can’t ask for death to wait and we certainly can’t escape it. It is in times like these that I feel incredibly lucky to have led a life of love. Most people think wealth is the most important necessity of life but they are wrong. What power does money have when it leaves you with a damaged soul? What importance does wealth hold when it burdens you with an empty palace? If only people would realise that and stop wasting their lives pushing away those they love and instead, just learn to be happy. We can only take our smiles to our graves, so why not focus on making it genuine? I am really happy, love. Trust that I am very happy right now and that I will always be watching over you. In fact, maybe I am next to you right now, watching over you with tears in my eyes as you listen to my voice. You always said you loved it, didn’t you? Now you get to listen to it any time you want.’
Her voice. It had been the reason he fell in love with her in the first place. It sounded like music to his ears the day she got up on stage and read out a poem in front of their entire college. Everyone had eyes on her but he had his own closed. He did not need to look at her to know that she was the one. Her voice was more than enough. A lifetime of memories is all one can ever hope for and he had plenty. Now all that was left for him to do was to wait till he could go be with her. If he really had one wish it would be that he could go back in time to when she wanted to go out to that party and tell her that he would love to go with her. If death was coming for her, death would have to take him too. That was the deal. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Till death did them apart. But no, even that shouldn’t happen. He wouldn’t allow it.
His phone began to ring again.
‘We promised each other that we would not have any secrets. We said that no matter what happened, we would always be truthful. That led to a lot of false allegations, don’t you think? Remember the time on our fifth anniversary, you came home late and did not even apologise? I thought back then that you were having an affair and we both fought for the longest time. I wonder if our neighbours could hear us. But then again, looking back, I realise that we did fight quite a lot, didn’t we? We argued and we bickered and we threw things at each other like we were the worst enemies on the planet. But we never did utter the word ‘divorce’ even once. Because we knew that no argument was worth being apart for longer than two days. We knew our lives together meant more than that. But I will admit to you now that I never was completely honest with you. I hated your blue and black chequered sweatshirt, the one you bought yourself for Christmas and for the longest time I disliked that girl Nancy who was your personal secretary. These are just two of so many other things that I hid from you. But you know why? Back when I never really thought that I would be a famous writer, you gave me the strength to believe and appreciated my work even when it was awful. You said I was born with talent. I owed you a lifetime of lies for that one that you told me.’
He smiled slowly, remembering their initial days. Even now, he was wearing the sweatshirt she hated and he promised himself he would never wear it again. He only did because she kept saying it looked good. Looking back at those times made him want to laugh despite the mood that he was in. As he shifted his weight in the rocking chair, trying to ignore the ache in his knees and the pain in his back that became a part of his life, he felt in his pocket another tape. Pulling it out, he knew that it was his own, the one that he recorded for her. But it was of no use now and he knew he would never be able to listen to it himself, so he threw it as far as he could and watched as it landed under their dining table.
‘Now for the difficult part of this tape. The ending. Before I fade away, I just want you to know that you are the best husband I could ever hope for. But I also want you to try and find love for yourself after I am gone. It does not have to be with a person though I really hope it is. It could be a pet or even a hobby, but please find something you love, something that can replace me till you and I are together again. I want you to be happy, dear husband, even if it means that the person you spent your life with is no longer next to you. But remember that I am all around you and I always will be. This is what I want you to know. This is my message to you. To find love in any way that you can and to cherish it the way I hope I cherished you. I love you, old man…’
He knew he was getting to the end of the tape and he wished desperately that he did not have to stop.
“No,” he said slowly, trying to turn the tape back, to do anything so she did not have to leave him yet.
He did not want her voice to go away, did not want for her to leave him with the same lonely emptiness but her last few words captivated him and he could not move anymore. He just sat glued to his chair, listening to her as tears rolled down his cheeks.
‘This is the poem I was reading out on stage the day you say you fell in love with me. You know the words very well by now, love, so recite it with me this once and let us create our last moment together. Here it goes…
I wish you weren’t like the stars in the sky,
oh, so beautiful, but unreasonably high
I wish you weren’t soft like the breeze,
slipping away from my fingers with ease
I wish you weren’t everything I know,
So I wouldn’t be sad to watch you go
How I wish that you were a horrible lie,
So I wouldn’t have to say goodbye
But if making wishes was that easy,
I would wish for you to belong to me…
My wish came true.
Goodbye, love. You will always be my old man.’
As the tape ended, he stared at it, his eyes moist, yet fully open as he replayed the last few decades in his mind. Just as he was about to get up, the main door closed with a thud.
“That was loud,” he heard a familiar voice say and before he could react, his wife entered the room.
“Oh my God,” he exclaimed. “You… You…”
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. “You look so… pale. Like you’ve seen a ghost or something!”
“Are you really here?”
Grabbing his walking cane, he attempted to stand when she pushed him back down.
“Oh, you just relax, old man,” she chuckled. “Let me go make you some tea. I know it is our anniversary today, but we have that party to attend… Are you sure you aren’t going to come with me?”
His head started to pound and he could not concentrate on her words. What had just happened over the last hour? Hadn’t he heard the words on his wife’s tape? Hadn’t their anniversary been last month? Was he dead? Was this heaven?
As a million questions tormented his mind, she came back into the room.
“The tape…” he said, looking at the recorder. “I just played your tape.”
“What tape? The one we both decided to make? How did you get mine? I hid it in the bottom drawer of my closet! Were you snooping?”
She had her hands on her hips, her face puckered up just the way he remembered it. But he couldn’t remember how he got her tape. He just knew he did.
“Silly man,” she said, opening the tape recorder and pointing at it. “It’s empty. There is no tape inside. Have you been drinking again?”
His whole world seemed to crumble. He could not understand what was real and what was not anymore. Everything seemed strange, as if his old age was playing tricks on his mind. His wife’s voice brought him back to the present.
“I am getting late. You take care, alright? I will be back from the party before dinner so you and I can enjoy a nice meal.”
“No, wait,” he said, standing up in a hurry and hearing his bones creak. “Look, I changed my mind. I want to come with you.”
“Yes, really. Wherever this… takes us, wherever we end up… I would rather be there with you than be left behind all alone…”
“It is just a party, dear. But I am so happy you are coming along…”
She waited patiently as he gathered his coat and they both stepped outside the house. The weather was pleasant, the cool breeze hugging them both.
“By the way,” he said, as he closed the door behind them and took her hand. “Have I told you lately how much I love your voice?”