Monday, August 18, 2008

“1999” by Surya Naidu

A gust created by a departing train tunnelled through the station. My hair swept up furiously and resettled in a new arrangement, and as it did, in the midst of the station’s dreary grey I caught a glimpse of red and decided to pursue.

It was 1999, the tag end of a British winter, that season when my plants would drown in the incessant rain and endure the raw bite of occasional frost. I had been headed to the high street to acquire a smart frock and hat for Sunday dinner at my nephew’s. I could have stayed at home that day, perusing the untouched abundance of the Sunday Best. Instead, the fates had lured me to the city shops that gloomy day. And on the way, in Northwick Park Station, I found myself obeying the womanly intuition that had eluded me thus far in my 62 years and following that glimpse of scarlet cloth. I chased it, lungs writhing from sudden action, until the illusion stilled and took form.

It was nothing but a crimson scarf, carelessly wrapped around the neck of a rather scruffy looking man. I quietly took him in. He was no more in height than me though quite a lot bulkier. Or was it just that his slipshod coat was oversized? He looked like a child stuffed into a winter coat two sizes too big because his mother planned to make that coat last two winters. He even had the meek demeanour of a boy with an overbearing mother. Benign on the one hand, beaten down on the other.

The scarf was surprisingly vivid, given its obvious state of disrepair. This man’s wife must have continually patched it with red felt in vain attempts to restore it to its original glory. Perhaps she had lovingly bestowed it upon him as a first anniversary gift, at a time when their faces still shone with devotion. The rich hue of the scarf would have accentuated his high cheekbones most attractively as they stood sipping hot chocolate in front of the town Christmas tree.

My gaze penetrated this man’s bulky coat and tatty scarf and I found his heart waiting for mine. Our souls intertwined as our bodies would some time later, awkwardly yet with genuine need. We instantly understood that we would share each other’s burden of pain and eradicate each other’s loneliness.
Like the scarf, the man seemed a tad worn with living. I would come to learn he had endured a divorce. His wife had not succeeded in restoring lustre to the scarf nor the marriage after years of raising youngsters. He only occasionally saw his children now and had not much of a relationship with them, simply sent them cards and gifts on special occasions as I did my nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews and the ever burgeoning cast of great-great nieces and great-great-nephews.

When I took him inside my cluttered home, the plants in my front window bloomed fervently as George showed me what I had missed in all these years of spinsterhood. The wellspring of womanhood burst forth like the tulips escaping from the moist soil in the jumble of my garden. Joyous love had finally come to me, and without the rigours of childbearing and childrearing. My mother and sister bore all the signs of these tiresome tasks. While they revelled in making me feel I had somehow missed out on the delights of motherhood, it looked like an uncanny trap into which most every woman I knew fell and was never freed. In the time that my sister had had her four children, I had traveled Europe four times over. When I spoke of my journeys I was met with silent scorn as if I had learned nothing that was worth a woman knowing.

But after our lovemaking, George would prop his threadbare head on his flabby hand and listen to me. He drank in my stories like pints at the pub after a long day at the factory. I was a fountainhead of adventure and he worshiped my luminous repertoire, my spontaneity. From the refuge of my bed he followed me to remote places. I only wished he had been with me in my youth when I had traveled so unencumbered, but felt so alone in my revelry.

George was 55 and entering the twilight of his work life. He was a sturdy fellow whose masculinity was a welcome force in my life. He penetrated parts of me that had leathered over after years on my own. He held forth the promise of things becoming fixed. If I couldn’t, he could pry open doors to rooms in my house that concealed the embarrassing disarray of my desolate solitude.

I had always loved the city shops and all their offers of better times. I shopped incessantly and impulsively. I had quite a few years back bought a new cooker. I saw projected onto its sleek black top languid candlelit meals. George could surely move the cooker from the position it had stood in since the delivery boys had dropped it aimlessly in the middle of the back hall.

The only use the cooker had served since was as a shelving unit for my tins and packets of food. When George came into my life, I quickly learned shame for the utter muddle in which I lived. Till then, the urge to tidy had rarely overtaken me as it regularly did my mum and sister. I thought their obsessive orderliness a hollow assertion of control over their ever-frenzied worlds as mothers and wives.

Their husbands had always seemed to contribute as little as possible to household maintenance, my sister and mum were to be satisfied with the pay purse they were offered biweekly after their husbands’ Friday night pub run. I had held out for a different marital configuration.

Sometimes when I observed my young great-nieces and great-nephews with their well-turned-out spouses I saw what I had wanted back in those days. These couples balanced illuminating careers, glamorous vacations, and the conscientious upbringing of their children with seeming ease. Had I been a young person today, would that be me?

It was too late for such aspirations, but my newfound nesting instinct heartened me. I suddenly longed to invite my relations in past the front door and offer them tea in the sitting room. Up till now the only occupants of this room were a unique array of kitchenware perched elegantly on couches and cozy chairs in their original wrappings.

My plants greedily gulped the water I offered them in the sweaty heat of summer. I thirsted for a sustained transformation in my life. George respectfully did not venture into the parts of my home that were cordoned off by stacks of books intended for shelves I was yet to purchase. He never questioned the absolute shambles of my home, nor the persistent stench that radiated from the kitchen quarters. He was oblivious to the cooker in the back hall.

How awful must have been his wife that he was willing to accept this state of affairs and my wretched arms? What could an old sack of bones offer him in comparison to that lithe being he had shared his previous life with? I had seen her once. She had to be ten years younger than him, and with that age difference came high expectations of how life should treat her. Her experiences were yet to fill her with resignation.

She seemed a determined and precise sort. Her tidy hair was pinned just so above her ears. Her scarf was not mended, but new and in the latest palette. She held her features stringently and she spoke curtly. Her cursory glance in my direction showed that she was not in the least disturbed by my presence in her ex-husband’s life. I apparently posed no threat to her self-image. She had eventually discarded George when mending and tending him had not worked. She was going to move on to the better life he had never quite offered up. She would never have a cooker in the middle of her back hall, this one.

On an unremarkable spree in the green grocer one day, I responded once again to a restless impulse and walked out with a sturdy cardboard box. Once home, I attacked the cooker with fervour. I began to feel giddy in a way I hadn’t since I was a schoolgirl swooning on a crush. I entertained fantasies of George taking me against the now lustrous surface of the cooker.

Devoid of its dusty companions, the cooker looked naked and vulnerable. I rifled through the contents of my sitting room and uncovered my state-of-the-art sauce pans. On the cooker I carefully arranged the ingredients for the Bolognese sauce I had learned to prepare in Italy 40 years ago. I was hardly aware of my plump tears until they splashed the immaculate surface of the cooker. A scene from “Like Water for Chocolate” came to mind. The protagonist weeps disconsolately into her cook pot and her despair infects her guests. My tear-laced meal would drive George to ecstasy. Most importantly, he would acknowledge how painful it had been for me to confront the cooker and the mad mess I had allowed to take over because no one was watching and no one cared.

I could not connect the cooker’s electric cord to the wall outlet and so the repast I urgently wished to prepare would have to wait until tomorrow night once the cooker was moved to an appropriate spot in the kitchen. I was exhausted at any rate and yearned to luxuriate in a bubbly bath. This would be a tricky enterprise as the bathtub was overflowing with a stockpile of cosmetic products. I would have to do with a shower in the stall, which was free of debris, though a bit mouldy.

I freshened up and sorted out some make-up from the bathtub and for the first time in years applied it to my face and neck. How I had aged and yet tonight my heart raced like a teenager’s and soared with the possibilities of my spring-summer romance. I reluctantly opened the door of the guest room to face the boundless pile of garments it contained, and lifted off the mound a never-used frock. Once clad, I lay down for a quick rest-up before the night’s intimacies.

When I awoke my face felt tight and encrusted. I glanced around the room to determine the time. The clock was buried under books and creams on my bedside table. Once found, its face revealed that something was not quite right. Perhaps I had not replaced the batteries. There was no way it could be so late in the evening already and George not here. He was due around 6:00 and here it was gone 11:00. How could this be? The heavy curtains over the windows gave no evidence of the time until I briskly whisked them open. A flutter of dust and cat dander pervaded the air and temporarily impeded my vision, but soon enough the truth was exposed.

It wasn’t that it was late in the evening but late in the morning. Things were worse than they had seemed a moment ago when George was five hours late. Now the effort of calculating how many hours he really was late was too much for my mind to manage. I lay back down on the bed and waited for the spinning to stop.

One day it did.

It was a day not unlike that blustery winter one in 1999. I caught my reflection in the mirrored window alongside the platform. An old lady at 71, wild in the eye, and hair flying from the slipstream as the train entered the station. And then, once more I saw that streak of red cloth. I veered toward the tracks, desperate to keep my eye on that vibrant crimson tinge over there. I ran towards him, arms outstretched. George!

Then red splattered everywhere.
A clutch of family members gingerly step through the backdoor, having made their way through the tangle of metre tall mange in the back garden. It has taken two strong men to break in the door as the frame is swayed and buckled with water damage. They are greeted with a powerful waft of pong as the door gives way. Rodents scuttle off fretfully into the snarl of the garden foliage. Everyone grasps scarves to their faces as the wretched stench of the kitchen reaches their quavering nostrils. Mixed with the dankness of the murky garden, the odour permeates the mood of the group and tension rises.

“How could we have let this happen?” sobs a great-niece, breaking the sombre silence. Guilt joins tension, and the collective head of the group lowers in shame and distress. How indeed?

“But really how were we to know?” comes the sullen reproach of a great-nephew. The nephews who have broken down the door remain soundless in dismay. This was the home o their mother’s sister, the auntie they have diligently invited to dinner every Sunday and who always presented herself in fine attire and joined in pithy conversation. She was the eccentric spinster auntie who would never let them past her front door but never missed sending a birthday card and thoughtfully chosen gift for their children.

Two nieces have wordlessly entered the kitchen collars turned up, scarves still pressed to noses. One picks up a jar of tomato sauce, another a package of pasta. Their eyes meet as they shuffle through the items sitting on a filthy never-used cooker in the middle of the back hall. All the fixings for a nice Italian meal it would seem. The rodents have long since emptied the packages of cheese and meat of their contents. They have even gnawed through a packet of candles and left hefty teeth marks in the wax.

“1999,” says one to the other in a bare whisper. They are beyond mortification and they have just entered the home. They fear what they will find as they move further in.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“It says Sep-02-1999 on this jar of sauce. That’s the expiry date,” explains the first niece. She pauses as the gravity of her observation settles.

“Mine too, or thereabouts. Definitely 1999.”

“How bizarre! 1999! And nothing to eat since then? Whatever is that about? Well, wasn’t she just the daft one!”

“I keep telling Amy to set up nicely with that fellow of hers before she turns into this lot!”

Flabbergasted by the kitchen’s disuse, the nieces attempt to move forward into the house, but are met with a precariously erected blockade of books. With a shrug the one leads the other out the back hall, primly circumventing the cooker, they retreat to the garden. They will have to hire some men to clean out this lot.

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