The alarm beeped at midnight. The platform speaker announced that the train I have been waiting for nearly 2hrs will be arriving in soon. I looked around, a thick fog had spread like a cloak blinding the distance platforms and sheds, a chill breeze blew with the smokes coming from the fire lightened by the tea-stalls.
It was end of December and the winter had its effect to the fullest at India. I have come to the railway station to receive my friend who will be arriving by the Rajdhani Express which is already 3hrs late. My friend is coming from Delhi to spend the rest of his vacation with his family. He works at an MNC at Delhi and has not visited for about 2yrs.
The platform had been nearly empty only a few passengers who may board the coming train or other and the tea-makers.
‘Would like a cup of hot tea, Sir?’
I looked up to and saw a man face covered by a shawl wearing a full-sleeve colour faded sweater and a brown colour pant. Most of his body was covered except his fingers which were holding a cup of tea.
‘Sorry, I don’t have any change.’ I replied. I could hear my bones vibrating but still I couldn’t afford the cup.
‘No need, I was watching you past 1hrs when I was making my stall ready, you were shaking in this cold, please, accept the cup. I would be grateful for helping you.’
Although I couldn’t make out his face as it was covered but his voice had a warm feeling and as I couldn’t resist, I took the cup thanking him. After the first sip I got some of my numbness away and was able to get a clear picture of the man.
He was tall, strongly built looked as if worked in heavy weighted jobs, but the queerest thing about him was his face, I could see the white flashing eyes but couldn’t make out anything other than that. He sat beside me and coiled his legs under the shawl and looked enquiringly at me. The silence between us was really getting chill in my spines.
‘So where are you from Sir?’
‘Please don’t call me Sir, I am younger than you. My name is Apu. I live at Bangalore but my family resides here at Durgapur. ‘
The man suddenly laughed. ‘Oh sorry, for startling you actually my son’s name is also Apu. He and I work together at the shop. He is now studying at class 10 at a Bengali medium school. See this is my son.’
He took out a photo from his wallet and showed me. As I took the photo from his hand his fingers were very cold as if he had been living inside the fridge for years. I looked at the photo; it was a picture of a young man holding hand of a small boy and beside him stood a woman with her face covered by the saree. Instead of looking at them my interest was totally consumed image of the young man. He was handsome with a trimmed beard and a thick moustache. He was wearing khaki so I guessed that probably he worked in the civil services. As I gave the photo back to the man sitting beside me it was really matching him with his younger self.
As I was looking enquiringly at him he understood my thoughts and said ‘this photo is about 5yrs earlier, so I have changed a bit and so had my son and my wife. I am Ram Singh, I worked at the local police station canteen and after my retirement I set up this tea-stall and earned my living. Due to my health problems my son now helps me at the stall. My native house is in Bihar but due to financial problems I had to migrate to Durgapur and got a job as a cook at the police canteens.’
The conversation was on suddenly I noticed that there was no fire at the stall for making the tea neither the stall had been opened. I was now really scared and suddenly my throat became dry. I looked at the man but now I could make out a smile beneath his face-cover.
‘You think I am a ghost, really you are scared cats, once you don’t get a clue you start thinking something paranormal. I come from home with a flask of tea for myself. See here is the flask.’
Saying this he produced a flask underneath his shawl and kept it beside me.
‘Sorry’ I replied feeling ashamed of my behaviour towards the kind man who had saved me from getting cold bite. Really he was telling the truth.
Then the man got up and looked at me. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked as if his presence had warded of the entire chill breeze and the thick fog and I was afraid that it might come again when he is gone.
He again laughed and replied in a very polite tone ‘If I had got the permission to be here for eternity, I would have been the happiest person in the world, but….’
He paused; I could sense a sob coming from his voice and his eyes were also watery, he couldn’t speak for another 2mins and the softly he said ‘and miles to go before I sleep….’ and then without another word he walked away.
I was in a state of awe, so surprised that I sat still for 5mins when suddenly my eyes flew open.
I was sleeping, it was 1 o’ clock and my friend had been searching for about 15mins at the entire platform and had finally found me sleeping, my phone had slipped out of my hands and had got separated from the battery, so it was naturally switched off.
I looked around the train was still there, passengers were busy with getting on and off the compartments, the guard signalled departure and it slowly crawled out of the platform. My friend was sitting beside me examining my face.
‘What?’ I asked irritated about his stern gazes and also the dream. Somehow the dream disturbed me more.
‘What happened to you? You were sweating in your sleep as if you had a bad dream.’
I told him about everything, that I saw and then he looked around and started to laugh loudly.
‘Apu see I told you to quit reading those horrible ghost stories at night and see the results ghosts have been coming to your dreams and offering you a cup of tea. I think this is thanks from them for reading their stories.’
I knew this would be coming, so I ignored him and said ‘Ok whatever, let’s go. You have been already 4hrs late.’ And at my relief he stopped laughing and got up to adjust his bags on his shoulder and I also took one. As I was about to walk something caught my eye which made a chill run down my spines, beside me was a cup and it still had some tea in it. I was so shocked that I sat down hard on the bench and watched over the cup. My friend looked at me and said ‘Don’t say that this is the cup that was offered to you by him.’
I looked at him but my focus had been on the tea-stall near him, it had been lit up, smoke was coming from it, I walked up to counter and saw a boy younger than me stirring the pan with a spoon. He looked at me and asked ‘Can I help you, Sir?’
I was in awe, but somehow regaining my consciousness I replied ‘Do you know Ram Singh?’
The boy’s face was blank totally and he came out of the stall and stood in front me with watery eyes. ‘How do you know my Father?’
I told him again the story with a little hesitation in my voice. The boy listened to the story in full concentration and then pointed to a photo hung in the wall of the stall. It was the photo of the same man I had seen in the picture which Ram Singh had showed.
Then the boy spoke ‘He is my father, Ram Charan Singh, he was an English teacher at a local school but being a teacher he was also a cook at the police canteens. One day the school authority had charged him from stealing and drove him out of the school. My father being ashamed of such a false allegation took volunteer retirement from the canteen job and started this shop. He used to give free tea to the beggars or the poor passerby or those who slept at the station at night.
We were living peacefully but one winter night my mother had come to give my father his meal and take me to the house, some drinkers happened to be buying something at our shop and as they saw my mother they molested her. My father was a very peaceful man although he had a masculine figure but he never had put a finger on anyone. He pleaded the men for leaving my mom but instead they kicked him hard and tried to pull my mother away.
But there was a whistle of the guard nearby and thus they fled, my father slowly got up, helped my mother up dusted her shawl, picked me up and told my mother to go home with me. As we turned, the speaker announced the coming of the Rajdhani Express and as I looked father he was sanding just near the edge of the platform smiling at me and when the train came he jumped. I rushed, but couldn’t as my mother have held my hand firmly. I cried and cried but my father never came back. It has been 10yrs since he died leaving my mother and me with this shop. We work here and often I hear about my father’s soul offering tea to the night halters at this platform but I have never been fated to meet him.’
Saying this he went inside the stall to switch off the gas, and as I had turned towards my friend I the last thing I remember was that his face was fully white as sheet and I was smiling.
I had lost consciousness at the station that night, my friend and that boy had admitted me to a nearby hospital and had informed my family. They kept the main incident secret because they knew that no one would believe, and the doctor had said that I had suffered from cold bite.