WSPI-2012-03: One Week In December – Mysterious Short Story
This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
[One Week In December – Mysterious Short Story]
I saw the young woman walking towards me down the street. She looked tall and loose-limbed and free flowing in her white Salwar Kamez and her face seemed to be illuminated by a smile. It was always nice to see someone smiling on the street, I thought-a grace note. Her white dupatta shimmered with a hidden glow of its own. It kept perfect synchronization with her long black hair-both blowing wild in the December breeze.
In that cold afternoon at Khan Market, in New Delhi, everything looked without hope and covered with fog. The sky was overhung with ash color. The faces of the people were pinched and miserable and the very air covered with little drops of moisture, getting colored here and there with various dust particles. The market was vibrant with the raucous sounds of the street vendors, street urchins begging for a rupee, never ending streams of cars and buses and people minding their own business. Nobody noticed her or paid her any attention. When she was nearly abreast of me, I saw with a pang of my heart, she was beautiful without any flaw and felt after a long time that life is good and something out there is still alive in me. Her face was luminous with its own inner aura.
Why had no man noticed her yet?
Unlike them, like rabbit caught in a trap I was rendered helpless with my need to know her. I had to grasp the opportunity that fate had thrown in my way and I did what I never dared to do in my youth and adulthood.
I followed her.
In and out through tiny alleys, like a flickering light in a dark tunnel, she glided without any pause. I stalked her- the Mary’s little lamb but of course it had been more surefooted than me. I doubt she realized that I was following her. I could not fathom why I did it.
A respectable thirty-five year old man is not supposed to behave in such manner. But the façade of the various layers of my genteel life had already crumbled away like breadcrumbs on a dinner table. My wife of five years proved not so loving after all at the end. She dumped me for a younger and a more successful man than me. The pain of the betrayal was akin to a raw nerve in a gum that flared and pricked me to distraction. I could not get over her or her rejection of us or maybe both and tried finding all the answers in the deep end of the sea of whiskey and vodka- but all it gave me was nausea and numb incessant depression.
So there I was- in an adventure of my own. For the first time since ages – I was interested in another woman. She reached towards the end of a particular lane, stopped in front of a derelict building and climbed up the stairs to the third floor. I dared not breathe behind her and crept up in slow measured steps, for the fear that she would hear my labors behind her. She entered a bar cum Café and closed the door with a load bang. The name of it was so hilarious that I almost burst into hysterical laughter. I clamped my mouth with both hands and swallowed back bitter saliva and took few quick breaths and controlled it. It was called “Heartbreak Café”.
She sat down near the bartender and ordered her poison. It looked like red wine from my table in the extreme left hand corner, where I plunked myself after entering the place. When I looked at the menu for ordering booze, something struck me strange-the most of the items listed in the beverages section had long got out of circulation since 1960. A seasoned drinker can make it out in a glance.
God some people can be so funny.
Then I saw them…. on the shelf opposite me…
The two painted pots with the red masks of demons seemed to have a will of their own, as they dragged me by my noses towards them. They had identical faces, with deep protruding eyes and flaring mustaches-only one with a yellow tongue and the other with the pink one. They leered at me with their open protruding tongues. Must have been brothers in another lifetime and yet still together…
I picked up the one with the yellow tongue and rubbed his coarse red face with my fingertips. The paint had a grainy consistency to it. They felt like sand but were finer in texture. It could be rice powder.
The waiter’s eyes twinkled out of their bushy eyebrows under the colorful red turban. “You sure are fascinated by our demons Sir.”
I nodded my head at him. “They are good souvenirs,” I said. “The one with the yellow tongue is striking.”
We went back to my table and I ordered one of those antiques. His eyes crinkled up at my choice and he put down his tray of empty glasses and asked me.
“Is it your first time here?”
“Ya sure it is.”
As he left for my order, he told me.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be back soon. They always come back here.”
“I won’t count on it.”
He just gave a broad grin and sailed away.
I sipped the whiskey which tasted foul and old and very stale but it warmed me up and made me feel cozy and at home in that café. My lady was sitting calm and immobile at her corner and sipped her drink at sporadic intervals. I looked around me and realized that most of the patrons were dressed in old fashioned clothes-probably late fifties to sixties, complete with the jukebox playing Hindi music of that period. Sure there were random people dressed in latest fashion but they were few in number. And the entire clan was masculine and wore secret smiles, as if the joke was on me. I had no clue to what they were smiling about. I put it down as some kind of lounge bar made up it retro sixties style with every effect intact-music, ambience, clothes, you name it.
I ordered the second peg and tucked the small of my back deep inside the hardbound leather chair and sighed for nothing in particular. Someone crept behind me and hugged me tight like in a reunion. I pushed the person away with all my might and turned around from my table with clenched fists and ready to trade blows- I hate getting hugged unaware.
She was laughing pure peals of merriment at me.
“Come dance with me,” she said. ‘You need a respite you know, from all these following girls business.”
I was bowled over.
“How did you catch up on me?’ I said. “I was careful not to make a single sound.”
“Come on, relax now Gautom. You sound like a grumpy old man.”
How did she know my name? What on earth is going on?
She dragged me with one hand to the small alcove near the jukebox. I got up so fast from the table that my chair fell down with a load clang and rolled away but none were perturbed by its clamor. We started our number to a romantic ballad by Mukesh.
“It’s true my name is Gautom- Gautom Malhotra,” I said. “I stay in defense colony.”
“And your name please?”
“Why do you want to know it?” she said. “You know, I could be that mystery that you want in your jaded life.”
She seemed fragile in my arms and her long hair tickled my nose.
“No, tell me please. Your name will make you real and solid to me.”
Her oval face had chocolate eyes which burned flames of delight and excitement.
“Then absolutely no… Let me remain a mystery for you tonight, okay. You can always find it out next time.”
Well why not? There is no law against it.
I nodded at her and time ceased to weave her spell on me as we flowed into more numbers and I wished the dance would go on forever. After almost an hour she detangled herself from me with a shrug.
“What happened? You’re tired?”
“No, I’m required at the bar. Sit by your table for some time and I’ll join you.”
“But where do you stay? I want to have dinner with you and if possible drop you back home.”
“Yes I know,” She gave an impatient shake of her head. “You’ll get all your answers. Go now.”
I reached out to touch her hand. She smelt like old flowers on a mountain track, frayed and trampled by traveler’s feet and yet its subtle odor can catch you by surprise and move you to remember forgotten memories.
“Hello, I want to spend time with you.”
I change it with immediate speed lest she gets a wrong impression of me.
“I meant I would love to know you better.”
She gave me a gentle shove and smiled and left me.
My table was still unoccupied with my half empty glass intact. I sipped it and made a wry face. I ordered another peg and enjoyed whiling away my time, as it slowly became evening around me. In the glow of the lamps I noticed a gentleman who was near my table. He was dressed in contemporary clothes. In his well groomed hair and formal clothes, he looked like a businessman with three kids back at home. He noticed my staring and raised his drink in a mock salute to me. His face looked familiar. Odd- but I could not remember who he was. Maybe I had met him in numerous conferences at work and I saluted back in return.
The demons on the shelf seemed to be arching their eyebrows at me. I got up and poured my remaining drinks on their faces. … There…..I’m fed up of them looking at me.
I went back to my fascinated contemplation of that woman who was sitting frozen at her stool but without any warning she got up from her stool and started with purposeful steps towards my table and her heels echoed on the wooden floor.
“Come let’s go now.” She peppered her summons with a smile.
I threw some notes on the table and ran after her -yet when I reached the end of the stairs- she disappeared into one of the lanes. And I lost her.
I searched for her in those lanes as hours passed intomidnight. But I couldn’t find her and I stumbled back to my empty apartment. That night I replayed her image and her face on a continuous basis. The following day I went to that building but there was no café there. I met an old man on the same floor.
“But Sir,” he said. “There use to be a café with the same name in 1959. And I think it got burned down a few years later. Where did you hear about it? Nobody here knows about it anymore.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Thanks for at least listening to my question. Bye.”
I dismissed him as an old crackpot and continued with my queries. Most guys, whom I interrogated, looked at me as if I had escaped from a mental asylum and on subsequent days stopped talking with me. I did not turn at work and refused all calls at my cell and landline even though they rang most of the days. That week was weird-the Friday to Tuesday passed in a blur as I continued my search. I would turn up in Khan Market by 9 am and have my breakfast either in open stalls or the restaurants and then visit all surrounding crossroads and alleys and by lanes till late evening- taking occasional breaks for food and coffee. By11 pmI would pass out fully clothed on bed and take a shower next day and go out with a batch of fresh enthusiasm. I remembered the intense cold that made everything seem gloomy.
My nights were full of strange dreams-of falling down from tall buildings as I looked in desperation to latch on something solid or hurled into in space with my legs plummeting down and still down or tossed into angry swirling sea as I struggled to keep my head out of water and I would wake up with my screams still ringing in my ears. The dreams left me exhausted and with a deep sense of loss.
An exact week from that fateful day, the succeeding Wednesday, I was back on my trail in the same area. My feet were sore and started to gather red and ugly blisters. It was 11 pm and I got late than usual and I was tired and hungry and decided to head back home. The road was lonely and I tucked the folds of my overcoat tight against me. All of a sudden, I felt somebody was behind me. I turned back-it was her.
She was dressed in the same pristine white. In that desolate winter landscape ambushed by icy winds and mist curling fuzzy tendrils around street lamps, she was without any warm clothes. She came up close to me with outstretched arms like a lover.
“It’s time now, for you to enter Heartbreak café,” She said. “I collect astray and lonely souls like you. Try to understand me, we’ve to survive. But you’ll not be sad anymore.”
I looked at her as words refused to detangle themselves from my lips and saw her slender fingers-pale white fingers with long nails and shivered. They…but…god help me.
They were covered with blood.
Like a dream I remembered the shook on the face of the waiter when he saw me pouring drinks on the masks of the demons.
“You shouldn’t have done it. They’ll take their revenge on you…”
In those unexplainable mind twists, like a solved jigsaw puzzle- I finally remembered that gentleman’s identity, the one I had seen in the café that particular day. I had seen his photo a fortnight ago in a newspaper headline.
“A prominent businessman dies in mysterious circumstances. His body was free of any wounds save for two holes on his neck.”