The Order – a short story.

She didn’t want to feed the monster but after ages, she had time. Time to work her way, one by one, through her long list of ‘Books to Read’.  On top was ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier. She logged on to Amazon and found 23 used copies. One of those would do. After finishing it she would donate it to the local Red Cross Charity shop. This was her formula for keeping a clean, spacious, open home. It’ll be here tomorrow. Magic.

Boredom stayed miles away as her mind landed fancy occupations. Lately she’d been listening to Eva Cassidy’s songs and imitating some of her less well-known paintings on her sketch pad. They were simple and sweet and reminded her of her childhood. She had also attended a poetry workshop on Zoom and was trying her hand at prose-poetry.

She longed for her home-town, Bhopal in India, even though she had chosen to leave fifteen years ago. Traveled thousands of miles in search of some ground beneath her feet and some air to breathe, after a major heartbreak. Now she had left that ruin far behind. Her job as a journalist felt like being with friends creatively. She had found that patch of earth and created a little haven for herself. At 39, she was settled even if her parents worried she was not. A little flat in East Dulwich in London was home.

The tiny package arrived in a massive lorry. She opened the door even before the deliveryman had knocked on it. She pulled at the stiff brown case. It was a fight to set the contents free but finally the book was held in her elegant hands. All eight corners were soft and rounded. Turquoise blue and white decorative pencil-work on a sinister black background. An ornate profile of a young woman with her hair put up anointed the front and back cover. This book was worn. Like her, it had travelled. It was smothered in a familiar dusty odour.

She opened it to the first page. In a sparkly green feminine font, it read:

“For my darling husband Atul.

Happy 4th Anniversary!

Sometimes I feel like Caroline de Winter.

Love you,

Sonali.

4th March 1999”

In that second, it was not her book. It was his. Once again, he had appeared out of nowhere and snatched her calm. The last time he did this was when she was a college student, happy with her books and music. He was two years her senior. He had subtly got her to look up at him and at life, invited her to parties, long bike rides and picnics. Before she knew she was his girl-friend and surprisingly she enjoyed the role. He made her laugh. He was a preening peacock and she, a simple sparrow. But it worked. They would sing and laugh but after 3 years of that, he made her cry. A lot.

Lost and lonely, she had roamed various cities and continents for years and finally made peace with her solitude. Now, the reins of the past had loosened their hold on her. She could breathe.

She had avoided acknowledging the existence of those two names all these years. Now they were lighting a fire in her eyes. One name of her one and only boy-friend and the other of her one and only best friend. May be this book had absolutely nothing to do with them. There must be thousands of people with those ordinary names.

The book sat innocently on her coffee table. She looked at it as she would an unwanted guest. She looked away, wondering what to do next. She turned on  the kettle as if in automatic mode. As two cups of near-boiling water were being infused with Darjeeling tea leaves, she prepared herself for the turbulence ahead. She poured the tea into her Frieda Kahlo mug and sat down again.

Her delicate hands reached out for the book again and casually unfurled the pages like a pack of cards. It sounded like a bird taking flight. A book mark fell to the ground with a soft flick. She fished it out from under the sofa. A pale blue and white visiting card:

Mr Atul Tyagi.

Tyagi and Lal Associates

First Floor. Office number: 133

NKS Plaza. Char Street.

Bangalore. 200 006

Phone: Office:  +44 221 63939

             Mobile: +44 976146022

e-mail: amtyagi@tala.net

Oh no! After years of laboriously moulting out of his skin, here was an invitation back into the darkness of it. An invisible chord lay between them. She knew of it. He did not. Did she have to do anything with it? No. Did she want to do anything with it? Not yet. There was no point blasting an exhaust fan over the dust that had taken eons to settle. The smooth glossy card reminded her of his forehead that she had kissed a thousand times. She held its corner between the thumb and index finger of her left hand and rested her head on the right palm.

Sadness – yes. Regrets – no. Excitement – a little bit. Flummoxed – a lot. Cat-like-curious – oh yes! Was this a psychological mind-game? Were there hidden cameras in her apartment, like the Big Brother House to record her reactions to this? Was this a sheer co-incidence? There were 22 other used books to choose from. How did this one land up in her lap? Destiny? Randomness? Serendipity?

For old time sake, she had to say hello. They were grown-ups now. They had to let the past sit in the past. Should she call him or send an e-mail? She could always hang-up like a truant teenager if the voice at the other end sounded dodgy. An e-mail might never be answered. She could send him a formal text and arrange a time for a phone call. Less intrusive. Also, it gave him a choice to chicken out. She did not want him to have that choice. Not this time.

Hello. Tyagi and Lal Associates.

Hello

How can I help you?

Hi. I am Kavita. Is that Atul?

Sorry. I am Manish Lal, his associate.

It’s ok. I’ll call back later.

Can I convey a message?

It’s okay. Nothing important.

Are you Kavita … Saini? From his college?

Yes.  

Oh. I’ve heard so much about you. Don’t worry. All good. He’d be delighted to hear from you. He’s traveling right now but I can put you in touch with him.

Where is he traveling to?  

London. He’s on a business trip. All the work is on me now. That’s how I’m in the office so late. Finishing up. Where are you calling from?

It doesn’t matter. I don’t have any message for him. Sorry to bother you. Bye.

Wait. Please. There is something you must know. I am his husband. Yes. It took him years to admit it to himself. Please forgive him. It wasn’t easy. Sorry.

Click.

Rush hour London

7 am. Monday. South-east England.

From the window of an inbound aeroplane, they look like moving lines changing texture every second. Demarcating hedges, rail tracks, rivers and roads run around in graceful undulating curves. These lines pass between patches of all forty shades of green. And some dry brown ones and watery blue ones. A silver set of solar panels glitters like a massive diamond. Imperfect squares and rectangles are juxtaposed like patches on an applique quilt. Thickets in rough triangular shapes fit neatly into corners. Multitudes to houses sit snugly like school kids in tidy rows. Each house, home to multitudes of stories.

London

The City is poised at the start line. London, in a state of fresh awareness. The sun is shining. Commuters are rumbling, making their way to the nearest train station, bus-stop, car or bike. Multi-coloured bicycles and black motorcyclists wriggle about in clusters. The air is cool. The smoke is gathering. It hasn’t formed a blanket yet. A hum in the background holds at a fixed, non-descript pitch. Jarring sirens of police and ambulances intercept at regular intervals. The stirrings of people, shaking the City. Millions of people in organised chaos, moving over and under the ground.

Me

I draw the curtains aside, to a dream morning for a bike ride. Gentle breeze and soft sun. I glug the smoothie I prepared last night. Pull on my cycling gear.  My body wanting to jump on to the bike this second. Put my stuff into the pannier bag that I should have bought ages ago. Remember to wear my helmet before the gloves. Remember to lock the house. Switch on the lights on the bike. Put on my yellow high-vis jacket. Say a silent prayer. And take off. Gear up. 1-1. 1-2. 1-3. 2-3. 2-6. 3-3 … The down-slope after the first right turn brings the morning air face to face with me and I am flying. Levitating. Floating blissfully to work. Lost in the rhythm of my breath going in and out. Feeling my legs going round and round in meditative circles. All my senses awakened. In this second, I am free. And so lucky to be alive!

Day 880

Stones and bones;
Snow and frost;
Seeds and beans and polliwogs,
Paths and twigs, assorted kisses,
We all know who Mamma misses.

The helplessness of being alive,
the dark bright pity of being human,
groping in corners and
opening your arms to light.
All of it part of navigating
The unknown.

They would not know
When I was gone,
Just as they could not know sometimes
How heavily I had hovered in a particular room.
I became manifest in whatever way they wanted me to.

There had been a woman haunted.
All of it, the story of my life and death,
Was hers if she chose to tell it,
Even to one person at a time.

I would like to tell you that
It is beautiful here.
That I am and you will one day be,
Forever safe.
But this heaven is not about safety,
Just as in its graciousness, it isn’t
About gritty reality.
We have fun.

The dead truly talk to us,
That in the air between the living
Spirits bob and weave and
Laugh with us.
They are the oxygen we breathe.

So there are cakes and pillows and colors galore.
Underneath this obvious patchwork quilt
Are places like a quite room
Where you can go
and hold someone’s hand and
Not have to say anything.
Give no story
Make no claim.

Where you can live at the edge of your skin
For as long as you wish.
This wide wide heaven
Is about the soft down of new leaves,
Wild roller coaster rides and escaped marbles
That fall and then hang
Then take you somewhere you could never have imagined
In your small-heaven dreams.

-Inspired by The Lovely Bones. Author, Alice Sebold.
-Dedicated to all those innocent people who died traumatically in London yesterday and to their loved ones.

Day 857

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Homeless people are amongst the most vulnerable in our society. The average age of death of a homeless person is 47 years for men and just 43 for women, as compared to 77 for the general female population.

Drugs and alcohol abuse account for just over a third of all deaths. Homeless people are over 9 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Other common causes of death are traffic accidents, infections,falls and violence against them. 

Homelessness kills.

Walking around London it is clear that despite significant investment in the NHS and improvements in homelessness services they are not getting the help they need to address their health issues.

Walking around Trafalgar Square, one can’t miss the majestic Georgian church, St Martin-in-the-fields . It is a hospitable, vibrant, open and inclusive, forward thinking community with worship at its heart. The Revd. Dr Sam Wells is full of grace and wisdom. He always speaks to my heart. I look forward to hearing him at the special service being held there on Saturday, the 4th of March for families bereaved by suicide.

This poem by Sir Andrew Motion is a part of an Arts project run by the Church and is inscribed on the balustrade encircling the lightwell in the open space near the church:

Your stepping inwards from the air to earth
Winds round itself to meet the open sky
So vanishing becomes a second birth.
Fare well. Return. Fare well. Return again.
Here home and elsewhere share one mystery.
Here love and conscience sing the same refrain.
Here time leaps up. And strikes eternity.

Sources:

Crisis research from 2011:
http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Homelessness%20-%20a%20silent%20killer.pdf

St Martin-in-the-fields:
http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/

Sir Andrew Motion:
http://www.poetseers.org/contemporary-poets/poet-laureates/andrew-motion/

Day 846

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Simba Muzira, son of Sara Muzira.
Exhibition of Art, Long Gallery, Maudsley Hospital. London.
Simba Muzira. Doing it again.

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Spray paint. Street art. Bold statements. Clear expressions. Innocent eyes. Pure soul.
Courage. Suffering. Passion.

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Pigeons telling him not to wear his shoes. Pigeons everywhere! No words!

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A mother’s tribute to her talented son who died at 32 after living with mental illness for a few years, in and out of the hospital. Her accounts of doing things in his best interest which turned out otherwise. Her heartbreak at having to live away from him when he was too ill to be at home. Her sense of an utter waste of a young life full of promise. Her guilt. Again and again. Her love. Immeasurable.

I salute you. Sara and Simba Muzira.

 

Day 834

Zombified, after 10 hours of intense work, I walk to the station. Someone stops me and tells me something about a special offer of a makeover, a photo shoot or something like that for any day within the next 6 months. I can’t fully comprehend it. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally sign up for but I am too tired to think and it sounds like fun.

A few days later I mention it to Si. He’s not at all sure about it. He wants to know more. I can’t give him any more details as I actually don’t know exactly what I have signed up to and partially paid for. We mark the date in our diaries, he much more reluctantly than me. Then a business trip comes up and it has to be postponed. The same thing happens again. Then I loose the vouchers. They say, that’s enough. It’s off. Thank God! A few days later, a call to say they have thought about it and they would like us to come for it anyway.

Today’s the day. Si and I find ourselves frantically sorting through clothes and shoes while gobbling down tea and toast this morning. We load up the car and rush into town only to find major road closures to make space for a Charity 10K run. A long diversion later we get there 40 minutes late but to our dismay they can slot us in an hour later. That hour is well spent in a cozy café nearby having jasmine tea and Halloumi salad, recovering from the long, slow drive through the narrow streets of London.

Warm welcome. Comfy furniture. Brightly lit. Spacious. Chilled out. Chatty, friendly people. Creative calm space. A few changes of clothes. A lot of laughs. Sharing travel stories. Smiles. Hugs. Cups of tea. Reflectors. Flashes. The shh-shh of the shutter. Strangely decorated rooms. Fancy backdrops. Luxurious sofas. Complements. Fun. Si loved it. Phew!

Trying out something new together. Highly recommended.

Day 832

The hospital where we went when he was ill is just down the road from where we live. It is 18 minutes by bus, 10 minutes but car on a quiet day. The Emergency department is on the left. The Mental hospital is on the right. There is a visitor’s car park in front of the Mental hospital. That is where we parked the car. That is where we waited for a couple of hours to be seen by a psychiatrist. That is where I had to make my own way that day because Saagar refused to have me in the car with him and his father. That is where he should have been when he was severely ill a few weeks later. That is where he could have been saved.

That is where I went this afternoon to watch a play called ‘Hearing Things’, a play co-produced by patients and professionals, based on insights derived from 6 weeks of workshops involving actors and people with a mental illness, offering both an opportunity for expression, transformation and co-creation. Through a cast of 3, we met people of different races and age groups. It was about challenging assumptions. It was about the empathy and personalities of patients. It was about ‘the system’ and the dynamics within it, mental well being of health care providers and role-reversal. It was about giving people a chance.

“I am off now to be mad and I don’t have to be sectioned for it”, remarked one of the participants as drama gave him the freedom to be who he is, without fear of judgment. It was about the possibility of being ‘re-assembled’. It was powerful and moving. It did not mince words. I spoke loud and clear. It was accessible, funny, clever and heart-breaking.

One young person describes his experience of drama:

“…after you do the drama you get this feeling…it feels as if whatever was bothering you went away and you feel light and can do whatever you want around you, it makes the day simpler and you can concentrate on your activities, it makes you feel better, like at the end of the day when you come home from work tired and you want to put your feet up, you don’t feel guilty relaxing as you have done a hard days work. I wanted to understand the person and put myself in their shoes.  At the end of it I felt good.  150% happy!”  

 It was about creating a new paradigm of relating to people suffering with mental illness.  It was all heart.

Ref:

http://playingon.org.uk/hearing-things-2016-2017/

Day 810

Left the massive, fire-walled monster of a building, feeling as tired as a rag. Stood on the covered walkway looking at vertical lines of water heavily following gravity, falling like a velvet curtain, making the darkness darker. Couldn’t gather enough courage to step into it. No rush. No one waiting at home. Cold hands in pockets, frozen tips of noses and ear-lobes. Cool, moisture-laden air flooding the balloon-bags in the chest and leaving with a tiny bit of fatigue. Even though the jungle is concrete, it offers some respite.

While I stand at the edge of this temperate downpour, tiny deflected reflected droplets find my face and keep me awake. The noisy business of clanking rain adds to the drama.

Over the next few minutes the drops become grainy. Splat! They shatter on flat surfaces of windscreens and pavements, leaving a little residue, a trace of things to come.

The noise suddenly vanishes, as if the conductor of an orchestra has indicated a pause. The air changes form. Little white flakes completely defy gravity and dance gracefully in all directions, seemingly weightless. The darkness lifts into soundless brilliance. Streetlights exaggerate these elegant movements. I bounce onto the road and walk under this light white flurry. My feet land on softness. The whiteness starts to make little homes  on hedges, fences and chimneys. I am transported into a world of lightness and joy.

For a few moments, all is right with the world.

Day 802

Water Water Everywhere
(A short story)

She lives in sheltered accommodation. As an octogenarian, it is safer. Her sons think so. When she moved in, she had hoped for some company. She likes a bit of chit-chat. She enjoys people. But she is fairly content. Every other day she neatly pins her hair up, wears one of her long skirts with a woolly jumper, wraps herself up in her sea-green duffle coat, puts on a smile and walks to the high street.

Betsy goes to the post-office to buy and post a card for her grand daughter’s birthday. She picks one with flowers and butterflies and queues. The only other person in the queue is a young woman. She has big black cordless head-phones with a ‘b’ in red covering her ears. She also has a vacant look in her eyes. It seems she is elsewhere. No chance of a chat here. When Betsy arrives at the window, the teller appears to be preoccupied. He is worried that the Post office might have to close down soon. He’s not sure how soon. That worries her. Last year her bank had shut down the branch on this high street.

She used to be able to go to the GP Surgery on days she felt a bit off. In the waiting area she often ran into someone she knew. It was good. But now the rules have changed. There are screens with smiley pictures and buttons. Appointments have to be made weeks in advance. One can’t just show up. Now, she feels like an outsider at her own surgery. She doesn’t like to go there anymore.

The grocery store is always a good place for a chat. The staff are friendly. Sometimes she even runs into familiar faces. She strolls around at her own pace and picks up a pint of milk and a pack of 80 PG tips teabags. As she approaches her favourite part, the check out desk, she is ushered in a perfunctory manner towards three ugly self check-out machines. That confuses her. She is not sure what to do.

It’s been one week since she spoke to anyone. On TV they said that the population of the world is the highest ever and rising – 7.4 billion! That must have lots of zeros.

Where is everyone?

Day 799

Happenstance
(An exercise in creative writing)

Carousel number 6 rolled and tumbled squares and rectangles flown in from Dubai to London Heathrow. People crowded around it, like moths to light, waiting impatiently. The black boxes looked suspiciously similar yet, 2 good-looking men in their late thirties, both in well-worn denim jeans and greenish t-shirts, both roughly size 40 picked up 1 each, assuming ownership and walked to the exit. One of them Steve, the other Matt.

As Steve left in a black cab, the thought of his ex-wife from a decade ago, Tara, struck him out of the blue. She most certainly lives in London now. He wondered if she had finally found ‘satisfaction’, smirking to himself. This business trip had been thrust upon him. He tried hard to see the upside with no luck. He had half a day to himself with no plans. He managed to check into his allotted section of the travel factory and sat looking blankly at the heavy maroon silk curtains, really bored.

Well, best unpack and venture out for a walk, he thought. Surprisingly, the number-lock on his suitcase was undone. However unlikely, he must have forgotten to lock it before departure, said his rational mind. He opened the black Tumi and was hit by an explosion of floral perfume. Looking through the fragrance, the contents of the box appeared textural and colourful, most unlike his own belongings. A red feather boa lay strewn across the top. He was shocked and intrigued, completely sucked into the suitcase. He picked it up like a thief, peering shadily around the empty room to check if anyone was looking. It was softer and lighter than anything he had ever touched before. He had to know what it felt like on his cheeks, so it automatically came up to his face. It was so soothing that his eyes closed all by themselves. After a while he respectfully placed it on the bed. On second thoughts, he bravely wrapped it around his neck. He then pried back into the box.

A pair of purple silk net stockings came next, another delicate, tactile article. It seemed ridiculous that he had a strong desire to try them on. For once, he allowed himself to go with it and changed into the sexy, luscious, figure-hugging, perfect leg wear. His hands didn’t want to let go of it but his legs loved it even more. Then came the little black dress, the dramatic fake eye-lashes, the flashy silver bracelets, the red pencil heels, the gorgeous make up, the Jitterbug perfume and the flamboyant blonde wig. And, they all fitted him superbly!

Suddenly a jarring sound shocked him out of his rhapsody. It was the blasted phone. The airline-man said there had been a mistake with baggage handling. Steve didn’t know how to speak with lipstick on but before he knew it a feeble ‘yes’ escaped his lips. It was arranged for him to take the suitcase back to the Information Desk as the owner of this suitcase was in a hurry to have it back. Steve felt somewhat curious and embarrassed.

A handsome couple stood at the desk, slightly pensive. Steve feigned complete innocence as he blokishly shook hands with Matt who leaned forward slightly to pick up the fragrance of Jitterbug perfume on Steve. He gave him a slightly crooked knowing smile that Steve dodged and furtively looked away. His eyes fell upon an older, more elegant Tara, Matt’s partner.

Steve’s ego was shot to pieces but he was grateful for this introduction to his own little piece of heaven.