Men like dahlias.

Without fail, he abandoned her the moment they entered the residence of the hosts of any drinks party they ever attended.

They had lived in the village for two years. Here everyone knew everyone. In the summer of 1976 Jane and Christian attended one such party. As soon as they got there, Christian was off, having a drink and a laugh with his friends. She could hear them raising a toast at the other corner of the large garden. Jane found herself standing near the hedge, admiring the flower beds and talking to her local GP, Dr Hamilton and the vicar. It was 7 pm and the garden was bursting with colours. “I do love these glorious dahlias” said Jane gazing down at the voluptuous crimson beauties. She looked up to find a shocked expression on the faces of both the men in her company. Had she said something awful? She worried.

The vicar looked at his feet, his left eyebrow still lifted in an arch. The doctor glanced sideways awkwardly, pretending he had heard nothing. ‘Only men like dahlias’ murmured the vicar. Jane turned red. There was so much she did not know. She quickly changed the topic to the nearby white roses, hoping they were safer. Uncontroversial.

The next day Jane had an appointment with Dr Hamilton. She said, “The Tamoxifen is terrible. I can’t fit into my shoes or get a full night’s sleep. Food makes me sick and I am impossible to be around. Don’t know how anyone puts up with me. My husband must be a saint.”

‘Yes. It can be quite de-feminizing” empathised Dr Hamilton.

“It was only a small tumour and they got all of it out. That was two and a half years ago.” Jane reminded him.

‘Okay. If the side effects are so bad for you, maybe we should stop it’ he thought aloud.

“That would be wonderful. And … it might make me stop liking dahlias.”

Things people say.

Dr Indu was broken inside out. She felt like a big black boulder and could barely hold her weight. After all these years of marching on alone and doing the ‘right’ things, this was her reward. Most of her friends had no clue what to say or do. After a few days it was clear that many of them could only stand by her for a week or 10 days max. This is when Indu remembered a passing acquaintance, Ruhi, a girl who wore long flouncy colourful skirts and big dangling ear-rings made of feathers and other dreamy things. She thought of her as a girl even though Ruhi had silvery grey hair and was seven years older than her.

Indu wanted to see Ruhi again. She didn’t know why but it had to be done. Indu posted her an invitation and as back-up, sent her a text with details.

The clear bright day was trying to cover-up the immensity of this death. Ruhi came in a flowing black dress with multiple strings of black wooden beads in various lengths cascading down, from her slender neck to her shapely waist. The ends of her long black sleeves opening-up like flowers to reveal her delicate hands. Not only did she have a pink lip-gloss on but also a serene smile. On this tearful day, she smiled on as if that was the most natural thing to do. No defiance or disrespect. A subtle involuntary smile, puzzling and misplaced.

She walked up to Indu and held both her hands in hers for a few frozen moments. She went on to open her arms and enclose Indu in them like a baby. “One day you’ll be grateful for this”, she whispered in her ear. By now Indu was used to hearing non-sense like “be brave”, “you’re so strong”, “such is life” and so on. She had learnt to ignore a lot. It took too much out of her to do anything more than that. “You have no idea what this is like” she thought to herself, feeling like a duplicate of herself amongst all these people. She drew back from Ruhi and looked into her dark brown eyes through her tearful ones. “Believe me. You will” Ruhi said softly.

Seven years have passed. Now Indu is as old as Ruhi was then.

And she remembers her horror at what Ruhi had whispered in her ear that day. The chains are falling off. Her vision is clearing. She notices more, within and without. She wants to live the truth. Be it. She knows it now. It’s all a ‘seeming’. All of this. It’s so clever. It fools us into believing it’s real. She has felt the presence of the divine in her broken heart. The blessings of a few fleeting golden moments of absolute grace have left her charmed with life and thirsty for more.

Indu and Ruhi meet up at the café that plays Bossa Nova jazz all day. They catch-up over large mugs of cappucino, sing and dance and take long walks together. They laugh and cry with abandon. Both wear pink lip-gloss and without knowing, they smile. Light as dust.

Blue Rose

She was the colour of almonds. Her smile so bright, it made the sun shine. Her hair waist-length, wavy and a very dark brown, like a heavy veil down her back. Her petite frame, shy, smelt of sandalwood. She was only 19.

Her friends had rebellious red, pink and green highlights in their hair. Some had happy multi-coloured beads and braids woven in. Others had playful ribbons platted in, like flower-girls at hippie weddings. She sat on her aquamarine blue sofa with her laptop, peering through colour-charts. She wanted her hair dip-dyed. She hadn’t picked a colour yet.

It was going to cost a bit but her mum had agreed to pay for it. She often did.

When alone in her room, unable to sleep at 2 am, Rose had looked up Helium and what it does. She didn’t know why. It was an involuntary act. It was nonsensical. Her body and mind were no longer of her.

Her hair appointment was in a couple of hours. She had to decide now. It was important she got this right. It was an expensive decision. The staid Royal blue or the scintillating Moroccan Turquoise? Silky peacock blue or the majestic sapphire? She wanted a straight horizontal line to run right across the dark sheet of her hair. The bottom one-third of the length a startling shade of blue, like a designer curtain.

She played classical music on the violin. Her ears didn’t particularly savour the Blues. They jarred her. She didn’t have a taste for blueberries. She preferred the ‘rasp’ variety with big dollops of double cream. Her wardrobe was a smattering of whites, pinks and reds. No blues there either, except the denim jeans and shorts. She was a proper girlie-girl. Blue skies made her spirits soar. But they left blue stains on her heart. She hid them like children hide pretty pebbles in corners of drawers. Her smile kept feeding the sun through the blueness.

She hand-wrote letters to the people she shared the house with, in blue ink. To her mother she said how wonderful a mum she was and she should take better care of herself. To her sister she expressed her appreciation for her companionship, friendship and laughter. Her little brother never left her side. She never turned down his invitation to play any kind of silly game with him. The dogs were all hers. They didn’t know they weighed as much as her. She had to sit down when they clambered all over her saying ‘we love you’.

The blue stains on her heart were expanding like drops of ink drip-dripping on a white blotting paper. She knew it was happening but didn’t know what it was. It’s creepiness had no name. It made her want to escape. It compelled her thoughts to convince her that her deepest desire was to implode. She had no say in the matter. It made her hands look up Helium on the internet. It kept her eyes wide open at night. It made her tummy churn, her legs restless and her head hurt. She now had 2 hearts and she moved between them. One blue. The other not. One wanting out. The other wanting blue hair.

“I am finding this difficult Mum.”

‘We need to leave in about 20 minutes for the hair-dressers my darling.’

“Yes. I am thinking about it … looking up the options on the internet.”

‘Good idea. We can take your laptop with us. I am sure the hair-dressers will have some ideas for you. Don’t worry.’

“I have some ideas but haven’t decided yet.”

‘Take your time. No rush.’

Midnight blue was the final choice. She was happy.

Over the next year that wretched blue embedded deeper into her heart and from there, leached into every cell of her body. Then it burst out, released itself and merged back into the midnight, the sky, the ocean.

That was 5 years ago. Till this day, her mother’s mind twists into painful knots when she remembers that day. How could her lovely Rose have wanted to live with blue hair and at the same time, to not live at all? At nineteen! How?

No one knows. Sometimes it’s like that.

———————————–

A video for every parent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BByqa7bhto

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.

The Sliding.

Ryan woke up at least twice every night to run to the loo. But last night he moved like a little whirlwind under the sheets. Sue slept through most of it but found it peculiar. She didn’t say anything, lest it disturb him but he disturbed her at least every hour without knowing it.

She woke up feeling tired at 6.30 am. It was a Monday morning. The day of the week didn’t matter much any more as both of them had recently retired. She as a head-mistress of a primary school and he as an accountant.

Their daughter lived in Liverpool with her boy-friend. Her job as a personal trainer at David Lloyds was less than they’d hoped for her. Her boy-friends spoke funny but for a living, wrote speeches for prominent people. The phony politicians who couldn’t even write what they wanted to say to the people they represented.

Sue put the kettle on and freshened up while it whirred. She put two green and gold Wedgewood cups and saucers on a tray along with a matching milk pot and a tea pot large enough to hold 4 cups. She entered the bedroom with the tray. Instead of sitting up in bed thumbing his phone, Ryan was flat on his back. His eyes red and fine vertical lines above his nose.

‘Morning!’ she sang, ‘You ok darling?’

With a smile, she placed the tray on his bedside table and placed her hand on his forehead.  

“Yes. I’m fine.” Said Ryan.

‘Did you sleep well?’

“Not really. The temperature in this room was all over the place. Couldn’t settle.”

The temperature was just fine, she thought but decided to stay mum.

‘Care for a cuppa?’

“Yeah. Sure.” Ryan raised his head off the pillow. An oval wet patch was imprinted on the white cotton pillow case. He quickly turned it around and stood it up against the cushioned head-board. She noticed but did not comment. She poured the golden-brown tea into the cups and added a few drops of milk for him. Over this first month of their retirement they had been falling into a nice little routine. Opening the day with a shared pot of tea was a special pleasure for them both. It made space for the rest of the day to slide into their lives.  

“What shall we do today?” she asked Ryan.

‘I miss my work. All the friends I had. My clients. The window in front of my desk. The 11 am coffee with colleagues. The laughter. I even miss the commute. I never thought I’d hear myself say that but it was nice. I miss all that.’

“Yes. I am sure. I miss my work too but not much. Shall we go to the garden centre and get some saplings? This is a good time for planting. The Organic Café does some nice coffee too.”

‘Let’s see. I might just enjoy the sun-shine in our garden today.’ He got up to visit the loo again. This was not like Ryan. He was the one who normally put ideas forward and she was the one who normally said yes or no.

As soon as he left the room, she put her cup down and stood up to get a closer look at the other side of his pillow. It was definitely damp. She peeled back Ryan’s side of the duvet. The bedsheet underneath him was certainly moist. It smelt of him. Only stronger. This was unusual.

Sue’s pulse quickened. She’d heard of people working really hard all their lives and then dying soon after their retirement. She shoved her silly thoughts aside and waited for Ryan to come back, trying to focus on the delicateness of the tea.

When Ryan came back, she was surprised to hear the puffing sounds of his breathing. His brow had started to glisten.

“Would you rather have a lie-in Ryan?”

‘No. I am ok. Nice tea. Don’t make an old man of me. I’ll be fine once I’ve had a shower. It’s funny. My left arm feels strange. Must’ve slept funny.’

Now she could hear her own heart pumping in her ears. But she kept it cool.

She managed a fake smile. A polite false agreement. She wanted to jump at the phone and dial 999 but didn’t want to scare Ryan.

“There’s no rush to have a shower. More tea?”

‘No. Thanks. I’ll get myself a glass of water.’

“Don’t worry. I’ll get it for you.” She jumped.

At the kitchen sink Sue stood like a statue, staring at the water pouring down the hole in the stain-less steel basin. Is today the day my life changes for ever?

She debated with herself on what to do next. A tug of war went on within her. Does he know he’s unwell? Is he really unwell or am I imagining this? Is that new virus in him? In our house? In our bed? Will he be terrified if I tell him what I think? Is he just having the blues? Or a heart attack? Or an infection? Or nothing at all?

She carries the glass of water back to Ryan. He glugs it back and slowly slides back inside his duvet. She walks around to her side of the bed, slips under the covers and lays down right beside him, holding him with both her arms, a little bit tighter than usual.

Like a couple of soft cuddly toys, they snuggle up. In that moment, she has all she needs. Ryan breathing, resting right next to her. Her tears meld into her pillow. The past and the future disappear. In that moment, life is whole and complete.