Return – Chapter 8 – Finale

Losses are what make us what we are. A lost cause this was. There could be no good ending to this, not even a satisfactory one. For I had thought of something and it turned out completely different, though in a way it had all been my fault. But so be it. I had learned to cope with myself, with the problems that I created for myself, and then never solved them for I was ever too afraid to face them. As I sat silently at Irtiqa’s grave, someone patted me on my back. I turned around. It was Shaena. I looked at her teary-eyed. She looked at me silently. No words were exchanged. But we did speak. Our silence had given words to thoughts in our minds. And we both knew what the other was thinking. And yet we kept quiet, waiting for the other to start speaking. I knew I should have begun, but somehow I had made up my mind to never strike a conversation by starting it on my own. And so I pretended to be dumb, looking at one’s grave now, while the other stood behind me.

When I turned back to look at her, I was spellbound for a moment. For it was not Shaena who stood, but Irtiqa. And she looked poignantly at me. “Irtiqa,” I gasped for words. But none came. For now was not the time for words. “Do not make a decision in haste,” she said. I asked, “What do you mean?” but by then the moment was gone. The face had now changed. Now stood my mother in front of me. It was as if someone had plotted to show me my entire past through her. “Come back, home,” she whispered. I knew it was a lie, a dream, a manifestation of my wishes and a by-product of my dreams, for the same woman had shut her doors on me only a while back. I rubbed my eyes. It was Shaena again.

“Here’s the key,” she said, “to your home. It’s yours now.”

For a while, I stared blankly at her. Only when it hit me like a rock on the head that I fumbled on the ground. “You do not mean what I understand, right?” I asked. I felt like shouting loud and hitting my head against the ground, but now was not the time for foolishness. “Give speech to tongue,” I shouted, “What do you mean?” She looked at me teary-eyed now. “She said you should come back home. Those were her last words.” And throwing the key at me, she ran across the street and I saw her changing into a silhouette and then only a shadow of the past. No, another death was not something I could handle at this moment. Not now. What had happened of my life? Was this the way it was supposed to end? Hadn’t I better plans when I first started? My head was throbbing now, and I fell to the ground. As the world around me started to fade, there was only one thing I repented about. This return.

Return – Chapter 7

Life goes on. It must, and it will. I had already known what the result of my feat would be, and was well aware of the consequences, or at least the end product. So it did not come as a surprise, much like how the breeze blows through trees, making a whisper, but never staying for long. I thought about the day when Irtiqa and I talked about seasons. ‘Autumn is for leaves what spring is for flowers’, she had said. The things were different, the work was the same. God works in mysterious ways, he does the same things to different entities, and yet we love one and don’t like the other; without any reason actually, because we have no reason to like one over the other, or do we? Such silly questions went on in my mind, for now I had nothing to think about, and more importantly, nowhere to go. My family was gone, and Shaena was gone. And Irtiqa, well, she was there, I knew it for sure somewhere deep in my heart, but it couldn’t become of me to look for her and go back to her and tell her all what happened and tell her the truth and that I loved her as much as I had ever loved Shaena, probably more, and that all this was a mistake that I should never have done. I knew already what would have happened. She would smile, as she always did, then go back to her life and leave me to my own. She would never ask me to go away, but somehow she’d keep herself away from me, to the point that her being or not being did not matter to me anymore, and that was okay, for that was exactly what she had wanted to do. And the other people in my life, oh, where were they now? How were they? I had no clue, and yet here I was, in a land far away, with no clue of where I would sleep that night, or who I would talk to, or what I would do, or what I could think. Life was just so.

I walked down to a tavern and the kind lady filled my mug with a fresh draught of wine. I gulped it down and banged the mug on the table. She filled it again. This happened for a couple more times when I realized that I did not really have the money to pay for my drinks. I looked on both sides, and suddenly ran out. I needed to run as fast as my legs would take me, for I had not enough to pay. But the wine made me stagger, and I could not run properly. I fell, bam on the ground, mud on my face, and I lay there. I don’t know how long I lay there, but I was sure I fell asleep. Because I dreamed. Irtiqa came around. She was now sitting beside me bandaging my head. It hurt. I held her hand and she held mine, looking deep into my eyes. And then she hugged me. It was almost as if I had forgot the effect it had on me. I grasped her with both my hands, and I was crying, I knew I was crying, probably wailing loud enough, but I couldn’t hear my voice, and that was when I knew I was dreaming, because Irtiqa, she would never see me again, nor would I. For that I would have to wait unto death. For she was dead.

I wondered how long I would stay alive now. I had no one to go to, no money to spend, I had wasted myself on the last drink, and now I had nothing to do, and the night was still young. There was only one thing I could do, and do that did I. I walked back to the tavern. The old lady looked at me with disgust, then spat on my face. I did not move. I looked at her, and perhaps she noticed my eyes, or maybe she saw through me, saw what my heart felt at that moment. For even so at that moment, a tear dropped simultaneously from both our eyes. I walked up to her, and held my ears as a sign of apology. And I waited for her reaction.

She smiled. Perhaps this return was worth it.

The Clientele

[1]

The black of the night gave way to light. It was just another normal winter morning. The birds chirped just as usual and the sun hid partly behind the clouds, glancing at the grass once a while, which partially covered with frost, occasionally turned back to look at the sun. The morning dew on the leaves was still as fresh as it could be, and the dogs on the street lay lazily without barking at the pedestrians who passed by them. As she woke up, she heard the bustles of cars and trucks from down somewhere. It was going to be another long day for her. Sometimes she wished she could just keep sleeping and not do anything else on a Sunday. But clearly, that was not possible. She went downstairs and looked around the house, clothes piled up on the sofa, a cup of coffee spilled on the floor staining the carpet, breadcrumbs on the table, and a half-finished bottle of fine Irish whiskey. She drew the curtains to let in some light, and sprayed a bit of the freshener to nullify the smell of cigarettes which seemed to be coming from everywhere. Slowly she staggered into the kitchen, finding the cupboards half-open, an untouched packet of chips lying on the floor, a coffee mug splintered into pieces. A slice of pizza was still left in the box, and the tap was open, so she went up to it and turned the knob. At the opposite end of the room, the television was playing songs on MTV. She lowered the volume; she wanted to sit for a while and catch up with the news, but there was hardly any place to sit. She smiled wryly and went back to the bedroom. The last week had been hectic for her, with five assignments in seven days. She took out her phone and checked her appointment for the day. Then she undressed herself and threw her blood-stained clothes carelessly upon the bed before moving into the shower. There, beside her clothes, slept the corpse of her latest client, Mr Jacob.

Once she had showered and dressed up in fresh clothes, she started with her daily chores. She cleaned up the bedroom, bundling up the blood-stained sheets that she would need to throw. She folded them one by one and put them neatly into a polythene bag. Then she took out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and an old rag from her bag. She dabbed the rag with the solution, and slowly but carefully removed the stains from the study table and from the floors around, where the blood was now turning brown. Had someone else been around, he could have pointed out that there was a blotch remaining at the corner of the bed where he was lying now, but she missed the spot. Rag and solution went back into her bag. She looked at him one last time and planted a kiss on his lips. Then she went down and cleaned up the kitchen. As she moved out of the house, she picked up the blood-stained knife from the table. It would be her souvenir from last night. Had she been more observant, she would have spotted a man standing on the other side of the road, clicking a picture of hers.

She needed to move fast, if she were ever to reach on time for her appointment. As she sped up the highway in the newly acquired BMW, her thoughts went back to the night before. She had put up a good show, and she had fought bravely. If only Jacob realized what was going to happen after he was tied to his bed, he would have never agreed. She let out a smile as his face came to her mind: the grin slowly fading out from his lips and the horror creeping into his eyes. He had tried to put up a good fight, but a businessman with his hands tied pitting himself against a trained martial artist were as good as a deer surrounded by a pack of lions. The odds were clearly not in his favour. He tried to shout for help, but she bit his tongue, and then he fell quiet. That was almost the end of it. She plunged out a knife from her side and quickly stabbed him thrice in his chest, after which she untied him. She did not want him to die a handicap. She could not be so brutal. And she was amazed at what she saw, for Jacob was man enough to still try come back at her. He staggered and pushed her against the table, and clenched his fists around hers. But he had lost too much blood by then. He only wished to have not drunk so much. The whiskey was doing its job pretty well, and he started feeling dizzy again. He picked up a cushion to hide his face as she came back at him. Knife struck cushion as sword against shield, and in moments his face had gained more scars than she had ever put on anyone. He fell back onto the bed, mumbling words of despair. She solemnly closed his eyes. And then she had a sound sleep.

[2]

She was about to reach the other end of the city. Her appointment was scheduled at eleven in the morning, and she had a good thirty minutes to reach. She called in at her office, and the secretary picked up the call. “Please mark a sick leave for me, today, Miss Donnett,” she said politely. “Sure, Mira,” she said, and added, “Get well soon,” before she hung up. As she came nearer to the sea, she started feeling better than before. She stopped by the sea for a while. She liked to visit the beach between subsequent appointments. It gave her solace. She had learnt a lot from the sea. Like the sea which took its colour from the sky, never trying hard enough to change. She believed in being controlled. Like the sky which controlled the colours of the sea, and the moon which controlled the tides, controlling when the sea be angry and when it be calm, yet the sea hardly revolted. But when it did, it did with all its might, flooding the cities and washing the sand of all its memories and the sand castles were washed and the letters people wrote in the sand of being together forever, they were all washed out. It seemed strange to her how the sea could be so tranquil and so ferocious at the same time, and how it could manage two opposite characters so well. She had always tried to do that, manage both her responsibilities with all her will, yet it seemed sometimes that one was slipping away to make way for the other. She saw a flock of white seagulls flying across the sky, and the sun gleaming blissfully over her. The clouds were gone, and the day was happy. She saw children holding hands and walking on the sands, barefooted, and she saw an American woman riding a camel in the distance where the sand met the horizon. A vendor came by, and she bought a scarf. A blue silk scarf, just like the sea, she thought. She glanced at her watch, and saw it was time she moved on.

She sped up her car, and reached just in the nick of time. She went in, and took a seat at the end of the aisle. Having order a crème latte, she sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf. She took out her phone and checked her messages. Somebody had sent her a picture. As she took her last sip, she saw a man in a black suit coming out of a car and heading towards the café. He was the same one as in the picture. As he entered, she stood up. They came face to face, and she shook hands with her next client. “Good to meet you,” she said. “Good to meet you too,” he replied, “I hope you know how important this day is for me.” She replied, “Yes, I hope you don’t start hating me by tonight,” and they both laughed together. Had he been observant, he would have noticed how her voice stiffened when she said that line. Had she been observant, she would have seen a man on the other side of the road, clicking a picture of them.

Return – Chapter 6

When we were young, my cousins and I played trump cards. The secret to winning it was to know all the statistics of all the players, so that you could guess which one you might be facing right then. Life was so much like that game. All you needed to succeed in it was to know everything. Only, it was difficult; probably impossible. I had decided to play against the odds. The twenty-third of April of 2014, six years from that devastating day. I had decided to repeat what I had done, and to play against what might seem normal to the others. As the sun set behind us, we walked on the beach, naked feet, sand seeping in between our fingers and seeping out with the water. We saw the tide come in, and we saw the full moon. It seemed the perfect time to tell her this. I realized I did want her to know it.

“I love you Shaena.”

“Are you serious?” she asked. Only this time her expressions were totally different. She was not shocked, like she had been before. But she was not happy. It was plain, right there on her face. She could not do it. She did not want to take the risk. She was afraid. And honestly, so was I. Sometimes we expect too much out of our petty lives. We forget the boundaries that do exist and try to see beyond the reality and beyond the limitations that have been imposed on us. I knew this was not the best step that I could take. The best step would obviously be going back to Irtiqa first. She deserved to know about this. She had a right. By not telling her, I was plainly snatching her rights. But at that moment, everything seemed unimportant. Everything seemed to come to a standstill, and the only thing I was waiting for was to hear her speak.

A cold breeze was blowing today. It would probably start raining in a while. I could see the clouds gathering over what was a starry night. The grey clouds against the black sky seemed like foam upon water in the dark. It reminded me of the first time I had smoked. The sky was black that day too, and I was awake the entire night. Sometimes, when we look into the past, all we want to do is undo actions, redo scenes, change our dialogues, as if our entire past was but a play, which could have been so much better had we tried. My friend had once said, “Just live. Don’t spend time thinking about what you are doing. You will have enough time later to sit and ponder over it.” And in fact it was so true. Looking back, I had never actually given much thought to my present. I was always locked up in the past, forgetting to live the present. It was a constant conflict between me and myself, a never-ending struggle, trying to get out of the past, but it kept pulling me in, much like a whirlpool.

My thoughts wandered back to an evening with Irtiqa when we were sitting at a café. My mood had been pretty much off after a heated argument with my mother, and the only thing that I wanted was silence, and a hot cup of coffee. I did not know she knew I was upset. I later realized she always knew everything. That was the problem with her. She was very intelligent. I did not have to tell her anything. She always understood. Sometimes I wished I could hide things from her. Most importantly, my feelings for her. But it was all in vain. Before I knew, she knew everything. But she never reacted. She was a calm person, a veteran to say, and she did not care much either. As I bought the cup of coffee, I noticed a smiley made with cream. Small things. She always believed small gestures were the most effective. She would never profess anything, only show small gestures. Perhaps that was also a main reason why I was misled. Sometimes she did things just for the sake of friendship, without expecting anything in return, without expecting one to know that she was the one who had done it. I stumbled upon a rock and came back to the present. Shaena’s eyes were fixated at me.

She looked at me, teary-eyed. “I cannot do this,” she said.

Return – Chapter 5

Sometimes things happen, and we do not really realize their importance until long after. As I now think of my past, so many events stand out in my mind, which at that point were simply instances, nothing important enough to remember, just moments. But those moments are what have made me what I am today, or at least attribute to it in some way or the other. And somehow a majority of the moments lead up to the same end point. Irtiqa. How I wish that it were untrue, and that there were more than one meaning to my life. I remember the first time I took her out for ice-cream. I loved a particular combination of flavors, and was exhilarated to make her try it, and she had looked at the icecream with disdain. She did not like it one bit. Chocolate was better. That was one of the first moments when I had realized that maybe things are not so common as we had thought they were. But what harm could it be? After all, an ice-cream flavor never disrupted anything, and we were too mature for that. Only, we were not.

Irtiqa. There was something about that name. And that something had kept me away from Shaena too long. I was not meant to do any of this. But then again, who could ever imagine that we would ever meet again, after the way we parted four years ago — she suddenly pulled me back. I had not realized I was crossing the road and that a car was headed towards me. I looked back at her. She asked, “What would have happened if I weren’t there here right now?” And I replied, “That could not have been.” She smiled. She knew. She knew what was going on in my mind. But she would never own up to it. She was too proud for that. And so was I. We already knew we had embarked on the wrong path yet once again, but somehow we had decided we would continue to walk.

“We should go drinking sometime,” she said. “I will make you vomit out every secret that you keep from me.” I smiled. She still did not know anything about that night. It is queer how intoxication can be a boon sometimes. Perhaps that is why people get drunk, to be themselves. They know they do not have the guts to unmask themselves when they are in their wits, but they desperately want to unmask themselves. And that is why they drink. That is why I drink. I remember the last time I was drunk. It was a total fiasco. I always drink only till I know I am okay. After that I stop. This one time, I did not. I wanted to lose my senses for once. I wanted to be just me for once. No limiting boundaries. People think that drunk people usually speak truthfully and that it is best to make them ogle out whatever they might have buried in their hearts. And that is somewhat true. Only, sometimes we lie so much to ourselves that the lie gets buried deep within, and we start thinking that it is true. And there lies the problem. We have moulded ourselves into something that we wish were true, and have believed in the alternate theory so much that it seems a part of our reality.

I dropped her at her home, but decided to stay out for a while. As I walked, the breeze blew through my hair. It was a starry night. The river shone brightly, lit up by the street lights and the stars and the moon. I sat on the bank, the cold water lapping against my feet. In a restaurant a few blocks ahead, someone was singing folk songs. I checked my phone, the battery was dead. There was nothing else that I could want at this moment. Nothing more, nothing less. I think I was happy. I was satisfied by my life, even though it had nothing to give, because I was too full to take anything more, like a tumbler full of water. The friend I had met in the morning crossed paths once again. “How was it?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. He knew I would say it was okay, irrespective of how it was. Sometimes it is foolish to anticipate anything out of anyone. And we had both learned that, the hard way. He left after a while, when he realized I had nothing more to say. I walked back to Shaena’s house. She opened the door, but blocked it. “What troubles you so much?” she asked. “Tell me or I will stop talking to you.” Déjà vu. Was she still so kiddish? “Are you seriously gonna do that, now, again?” “No, I am joking. But you need to tell me. I am a friend, believe me, I am, and will be. We are past all that now, and I promise nothing of that sort will ever happen again.”

Perhaps I took a wrong decision at that very moment.

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Return – Chapter 4

As I walked back, I pondered on how she would feel if she knew of this. She had always been patient when it came to listening to stories about Shaena. She was beautiful. We were beautiful. Irtiqa. When we first met, we had talked for a couple of hours before we exchanged our names, and by then it had been too late for us to back out. How everything went after that, and what it led to, only we knew. Irtiqa, she said, meant progression. She had kept the entire thing afloat, and somehow I had felt it was her who I owed so much in my life. But life is a strange affair, and we were meant to not be. If she were here today, she would probably have walked with me, discussed if it were right, whatever I was doing, and maybe even encourage me a little, boost up my confidence, that pretty smile that changed everything, those instantaneous hugs and pats on the head… it had been a good time together.

I sat in the drawing room, waiting for Shaena to come downstairs. On the opposite wall, there was a poster, which reminded me of a stanza which she had read out to me ages ago.

“For when the sky is dark,
The rains will come,
And when the rains do come,
The dust will wash off,
And when the dust washes off,
New dust will settle,
Until the sky turns dark again.”

It seemed so true and so clearly untrue at the same time. Indeed life was a circle. Not one big one, but many small circles. You kept going round and round unless you found the way out. For me, I still hadn’t discovered the way, and was engulfed in it, round and round and round. I looked up at the ceiling, the fan moving persistently, in slow circles, never tiring. I wondered what would happen if the fan rotated counter clockwise instead of clockwise, and whether it would just break out of the ceiling and fall on my head if I were to close my eyes. I kept my eyes open. Irtiqa kept interrupting my thoughts. I thought of the day when I had finally decided I would ask her out, and then the tumultuous events that led to me deciding for once and all, that it was never meant to be. Once a while I looked up the stairs to see if she was coming down.

After half an hour she did. She looked mesmerizing. It would have been wrong to say she looked just pretty, or gorgeous. She looked different. Different from how she looked yesterday, when we met for the first time in years. Of course, she didn’t realize she was talking to me then. She had drank more than she was capable of. We had talked as if we were strangers, until Saeeka turned up. Things changed, and I instantaneously left that place. But how she talked today didn’t really suggest she had any idea of what happened yesterday. And maybe that was for the good, because it would have been the worst possible reunion I could have imagined if it were to happen that way. But things happen, they just, happen. They are not always under your control. Two years back, when Irtiqa and I first kissed (and it was the last time too), it just happened. We never talked about it again, pretending as if it never happened. Could it be Shaena was pretending too? Whatever it was, I decided to let it be as it was. She came down the stairs. “Let’s go?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, and we walked out.

On our way, she chattered consistently. It felt nice to listen to her, after such a long time. The wind blew through her hair, so she took it up all in a bun, but then she saw the dismayed face that I had involuntarily and unintentionally made, and she left it open again. It was only after she smiled that I realized my face was crooked. “Have you read A Song of Ice and Fire?” she asked. “Oh yes, it is one of my favorite series,” I replied. It had been fifteen minutes since the last time I spoke, and so I had to grab this opportunity. But she didn’t let me. Instead, she prattled about her friends, college, life, thoughts, plans, wishes, memories and what not. Even so, it felt good. The winter wind on my face, the damp sun after the rain, and the snowy streets, all reminded me of times long gone by. We crossed a pond, where in the summer you would spot lots of fishermen trying to grab their lot of fishes for the day. Now, however, it was covered with a sheet of ice. The trees were white too, as if they had white leaves. The aroma of Christmas floated. It was less than a fortnight away. “I have a friend, her name is Irtiqa,” I said. “Oh, nice name,” she said, before continuing with whatever she was talking about. It was five minutes later that she realized I wanted to tell her something, and then she finally stopped talking. It was my turn.

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Return – Chapter 3

Breakfast consisted of a lot of catching up. “What are you reading these days?” I asked. She looked at me melancholically, as if an entire life ushered in front of her eyes. “Love Story,” she said. “The Erich Segal one?” I paused, “or the one we wrote?” I tried keeping my face straight. She blushed, and in an instance I was transported back to school. Her shy smile hadn’t changed a bit. “The Erich Segal one, you fool,” she smiled. We talked a lot about what happened in our lives in the past four years, shared lots of stories. She talked nonchalantly, her hair still auburn, a thousand clips placed tightly. It reminded me of the first time I had seen her, how she kept drawing petals and flowers on her notebook, and how far we had come from there. “You remember the Biology lab?” she asked. The biology lab was where our entire story started. “You think I can forget it?” I said, winking slightly. My mind kept shifting from memory to memory, sieving those which had her in them. It was astonishing how I remembered so much, when I had not given much thought to it for such a long time. She insisted that I tell her more about my college, and what I had been up to for the past four years. I could tell her the truth, this time I had nothing to lose, but somehow, I kept back most of the truth from the story. I told her a bit about my friends, and a bit about my college, only as much as was needed. We decided to go out for lunch in another two hours. I told her I would be back on time to pick her up. We hugged and waved good bye to each other.

The sun was up, shining ever so brightly. It was as if it rejoiced in my return. I went back home, knocked on the door, hoping she’d not close it on my face like she did a while ago. I had my plan ready; I would hug her as soon as she opened the door, giving her no time to shut it on my face. As I retraced my steps, it began to rain. It was only a drizzle first, a pitter-patter, but I stood there, in the middle of the street, rejoicing the rain, as it washed away the dust on the streets, and from the memories that lay stacked in my brain for so many years. It reminded me of the days when I went to school during the monsoons. I still remember the faint white tube-lights of the classroom switched on even though it was early in the morning, and the smell of the mud never allowing me to concentrate in the class, my eyes always shifting from the blackboard to the skies outside, black and grey, dull and gloomy, yet happier than what the teacher was teaching. And how that changed later, when though it rained, the only place my eyes went were her eyes, and the teacher kept running through huge courses I had no idea of. But that was a lifetime ago. Those need not have bothered me anymore, not more than the fact that I would never grow young again, and never relive those moments; etched deep in my thoughts, like engravings on stone, made with other stones, proclaiming love in the forts and on the trees, so that people around the world knew who you were; the wish to be famous. It was queer how we never became famous for our good acts, and some, like us, never got any fame, remained in the backgrounds, forever working for those who received all the fame, and yet I didn’t regret. And suddenly I realized, the rain had stopped. I needed to do some serious business now. And so I walked.

I went back home, only to find the door locked. I waited outside, for an hour, and another, and then another, but she didn’t come. Where could she have gone? She was here this morning. I felt an eerie sense of disownment. Maybe it was never destined to be so. Our lives had separated, and no matter how hard I tried, probably nothing good would ever come out of it. Our relationship was like a thread, once broken; I tried knotting it up, and making it one whole piece again, but that knot… that knot was there, and howsoever hard I tried, the knot would be there. To remove the knot would mean to break the thread again, and I had to choose one over the other. But the knot was hurting, it hurt a lot. And so I needed to break the thread, even if it meant losing someone dear, someone close to the heart. For sometimes, it’s not the act, but the repercussions and the consequences that make you act towards it. And something similar was happening here. I got up, kicked the door one last time, though nothing really changed, and strolled off. I had to be on time for lunch.

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