The man looking directly at me was not handsome.
His cheeks were carpeted with several days worth of growth, and most of the bristles were grey. If he had any hair on his scalp that would have likely been mostly greying too, I thought uncharitably. His nose was too big and even his ears seemed to stick out, though that effect was possibly due to the fact that he was bald. Very ordinary, I thought to myself with a sigh and turned away from the bathroom mirror because I could hear my wife calling.
She was in the sitting room watching a rerun of one of her favourites. Both her feet were propped up on a table designed to bear a far lesser weight and I could see the unseemly rolls round her abdomen that hadn’t been there on the day of our marriage fifteen years back. One of her hands was dipped into a jumbo pouch of potato crisps and she half-turned when she sensed me enter.
“What time are you leaving to pick up the boys from their class?” The words were barely out from her mouth when she turned back to the screen, obviously not wanting to miss out.
I glanced at the wall clock behind the television. It was not yet four. I had returned from work less than thirty minutes back. There had been time enough to only to kick off my footwear, tuck my bag away and head to the bathroom to freshen up; the wife’s summons had caught me before I’d had the chance of a cup of tea.
The karate session wouldn’t end until, and it was a mere ten minute drive to reach them. “Did you want me to pick up something?”
She nodded. “On the way home get some tandoori. And butter chicken and fried rice for you guys.” Crisps crackled in her mouth as they got crushed between her teeth. “Don’t feel up to cooking tonight.”
Leaving her to her program, I went to the kitchen and prepared a hot mug of tea using a tea bag. Standing in our tiny balcony extending from the living room, I looked down from our sixth floor apartment. As views went, this one was not a pleasant one. We were surrounded by high-rise blocks on all sides. A major road ran parallel to the front face of our building, and I could see the lines of vehicles moving to and fro like toys. The sheer volume of traffic was staggering, reducing the speed to a mere crawl. There was a lot of noise too. From where I stood, there was not a single tree in sight. There were just grey structures stretching into the horizon, and dust and noise and mechanized movement.
Directly below, I saw a blue car pull out of the parking enclosure belonging to our housing society. Leaning, I watched it turn onto the main artery and move along the route until it finally was engulfed by the flow of traffic beyond the traffic lights. I recognised that car. It belonged to a young lady living on the fourth floor. Her name was Divya and she was a recruit for a law firm.
Divya shared the double bedroom apartment two floors below mine with a girl called Petina. This one worked in some outfit similar to a call center, or so the building watchman Parab told me. At any rate, she had strange work timings which resulted in her entering the building at six in the morning and leaving at about eight at night. Divya’s hours were more traditional and the result was the girls bumped into each other only a few hours in each day.
Checking my watch again, I reckoned Petina would be in the flat now, sleeping. Divya must have returned early and was now headed out again, probably to some club. She liked to return late at night, and I had seen on several occasions how she was dropped at the main gate by some young man on a motorbike.
Petina would be asleep now. The thought kept running through my mind, and I thought quickly whether I could take the chance. There was still ample time before I had to collect our sons, and my dear wife was so engrossed in her program she wouldn’t notice if I walked out without any clothes on.
Straightening, I left the balcony, quickly closing the door to shut out the noise. I deposited my mug on the kitchen platform and went to pick up my scooter keys.
My wife returned my wave, which surprised me until I realised a commercial was running, and I stepped out of our flat and into the landing.
Each level housed four apartments and all the four access doors opened into this common landing. The opening of the elevator was to my right and opposite it were the flights of steps, one leading up the other downwards.
I went to my left and walked down one step at a time, treading quietly, listening to hear if there was someone else moving on the steps. It didn’t seem likely because this high up, no one in their right mind would want to take the steps when there was a lift nearby. But I needed to be careful. Because I didn’t need anybody witnessing what I was about to do.
I reached the fourth floor without meeting anyone. I stopped on the landing and looked at the four doors looming out like sentinels. The one I was interested in was the one that was under mine, the one the two young ladies stayed in. There was a shoe rack outside that door, and next to it was a potted plant. The name plate on the door was a different name, the name of the landlord of the apartment.
Hearing no sound at all, I quickly went to the potted plant and feeling behind the thick stem pulled out a key. I placed an ear against the main door, but could hear nothing. She was probably still asleep, I guessed and without a second thought I slid the key into the lock.
The door eased open noiselessly and i pushed it inward an inch and listened. Nothing.
I pushed in some more, saw that there were no lights or fans running and then entered, pausing only to hide the key where I had found it.
A couple of weeks ago, while coming down the steps because the damn elevator had been out of order, I had seen something unusual. Divya was crouching to reach for something inside that pot outside the door. I walked by quickly and the girl had not even turned to acknowledge me. I wonder if she even knew I existed. It’s terrible what being so ordinary-looking does to your self-esteem.
But I wondered about what she had been reaching for, and when I got the chance to check a day later, I found the key. It matched the name on the door’s lock and I then realised what I was holding was a key to that door.
Obviously, the landlord had given the pair just one key. With their varied timings, it had probably seemed more sensible to share one key by hiding it than getting a duplicate made. What tenant makes duplicate keys anyway, right?
This bit of knowledge had sent a thrill coursing through me, and I had wondered to myself what I could do with it. Obviously I had no criminal intent in mind, but I contemplated the possibility of probing through their flat when they were not in. This led to my studying their work patterns, which had included buying some sweet packets for the security guard Parab and pumping him for info. That was how I was so aware of their timings regarding their comings and goings.
Their radically different work schedules left me a hardly any window of opportunity to enter when neither was there inside the flat. The only option was to enter whilst one of them was there. The obvious time seemed to be to enter during the night when Divya was asleep, but I could hardly sneak out of my flat in the middle of the night. If my wife awoke and found me gone she would want to know exactly where the hell I had disappeared to at such an ungodly hour. And the day-time, when Petina was sleeping inside, tired after a whole night on duty, was not such an easy proposition, especially when I had a day job.
Nothing happened until somewhere in April. There was a strike announced, and all of us were told to stay home. I took that opportunity to enter, after first checking that Divya’s car was not downstairs. That first entry had been very tentative, and I had padded lightly through the apartment, hearing the sound of a fan running in one of the bedrooms. I had paused at the doorway, and taken note of the shape asleep in the bed. Petina was breathing heavily, and I had back-tracked and walked through the flat, careful to dislodge nothing. I left soon after that.
My next chance came about a week before, and I had entered as before, pausing at the doorway and watching the form on the bed. She was snoring and when the mobile next to her emitted a soft chime to indicate an incoming text message she didn’t even stir. She was in deep slumber.
I had moved to the second bedroom and then sat on the bed. Divya’s, I thought, breathing in her fragrance. The bed had not been made and there were clothes tossed on it. I picked up a bra that was dangling off one edge, and imagined Divya wearing it. The thought that came to my mind was overpowering and I suddenly picked myself up and moved to the wardrobe against one wall. The drawers opened silently and I found her lingerie without trouble.
The materiel was all lacy and silky, as I had imagined it might be, and for a moment I wondered if I could pinch a garment, to keep for myself as a trophy. On that occasion, I had stayed inside for almost forty minutes, absorbing all of it, feeling a sense of raw power.
Today, I would do more. I would enter Petina’s room and probe through her drawers while she was asleep right next to me. It was crazy to be doing this, but the sheer thrill it was giving me was like a high I had never before experienced. It was like a drug, and I was hooked. I knew it was wrong, I knew it was bad for my health, but I simply couldn’t help myself, I just craved more.
And now I was stepping into her bedroom. I could hear her soft snores and looking to make sure she was asleep I suddenly halted in my tracks, stunned. Petina was sleeping in the nude!
I took an unsteady step forward, unable to believe my luck. She probably wasn’t expecting her room-mate to return any time soon. My eyes drank in her form, turned sideways, with one hip arched forward provocatively. There was enough light to make out her curves, extending from the swell of one exposed breast to that hip jutting outwards.
I struggled to remove my phone. I was going to record this. I just had to, I thought desperately, mouth suddenly dry. I switched the mode to vibrate and touched the camera icon. Standing back, I held out the phone and began recording, going from head down and zooming in wherever required. Pausing the recording, I wished I could get her to change her position. How was I going to do that? I wondered, licking my lips at the prospect.
It was at that instant that I heard the main door open and then someone switched on the light in the sitting room.
For a few instants, I honestly believed my heart would explode. My phone fell from my limp hand and onto her mattress as I turned, grappling with the reality that I was trapped inside the apartment.
I could hear a voice. It was Divya’s! Good Lord, she had returned early…
I dropped to the floor and scrabbled under the bed. A masculine voice said a few words and I saw a woman’s feet halt in Petina’s doorway. “Pets?” said Divya in a low voice. She waited a while then shut the door, saying: “It’s alright, she’s still asleep.”
I pressed my forehead to my crossed arms and groaned. She had brought home her boyfriend. But how was that possible? One of the rules of this Society related to ‘friends’. This was a decent community, and there were firm guidelines on such issues. There was no way Divya would have been able to get a BF into the property. How had she sidestepped Parab? Maybe he was only here for a short while. Maybe they had just come back to pick up a few things.
But if that was the case why had they closed her door?
I listened. Petina was still snoring, oblivious. Moving quietly, I slithered across to the door and pressed my ear against the wood panel. I could hear voices. Someone was laughing.
I shook my head, suddenly terrified. What a horrible predicament I was in! If I was caught here, there would be hell to pay. No one would see the funny side of things. No one would stop to consider that my intentions had not been criminal.
I shivered as all sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. My wife would kill me for sure. And I would probably be hounded out of the society. I would have to relocate. And who knows what the implications would be for my job…
I was sweating now and I huddled against the door, holding my bent limbs tightly. This was pure torture, mental agony at its worst. Something struck me and i glanced at my watch. My sons! I was supposed to pick them up by six! Dear Lord, how could this be happening….
The fan in the living room went off. Sensitized as I was in my current state, I picked up the change in sound levels instantly. I leaned to the door, desperate to hear a noise that would indicate the couple were leaving. The sound of the door shutting sent my spirits soaring, and I got to my feet quickly and moved over to the window that overlooked the main road.
I waited and watched and prayed. A few minutes later, I saw the blue car belonging to Divya drive out from the building parking lot. Inside I cheered. I turned, aware of the snoring sounds on the bed.
I scooted to the door, quickly listened for any further sounds from the world outside the door.
I turned the knob and swung the door open. What the hell…
The man in the sitting room on the ladder doing something on the wall didn’t see me because his back was to me.
But the two girls in the kitchen had presumably seen Petina’s door open and had rushed out, yelling a warning to the man on the ladder.
But the words on their lips died when they saw me, and their movement made the man on the ladder turn and then turn around all the way to see where they were looking, and then he too stopped what he was doing and they were all staring at me in bewilderment.
Time seemed to be suspended, and in every way possible, so was speech and movement.
The only sound I could hear was my heart pounding painfully inside my chest. And as the bunting he had been sticking fluttered down, the only thing I could see was the large cake on the table and the words on it that I would not forget easily: Happy birthday Petina!