“Life is much too beautiful to burden yourself with grudges, isn’t it? So why not just laugh and create beautiful memories?” A short story.
Here is the second winner of our December 2016 Muse of the Month contest, Ashima Jain.
The cue for this month was “There is love and understanding in this knowledge. There is sorrow.” – Namita Gokhale, Shakuntala: The Play of Memory.
I thought I had heard a bell. A continuous piercing sound, rudely catching me mid-step as I ran forward. The sudden noise made me stumble on a rock I hadn’t seen hiding beneath the tall grass. I squeezed my eyes shut as I fell to the ground. We had been running in a field, barefoot, feeling the cool damp grass between our toes. I was lagging behind even though my legs were longer than yours.
There had been a light drizzle the previous day. Thankfully, it hadn’t interrupted our plans for a quiet picnic out in the country. We had packed a hamper of our favourite sandwiches and driven out as soon as the sun came up. It was a bright, beautiful day.
My fall was cushioned by the grass. I wanted to call out to you but you were too far ahead. You probably wouldn’t have heard me in the distance, over the sound of the winds playing hide and seek with the trees.
I waited, my feet entangled, expecting the grass to tickle me; the wetness of the damp earth to seep through my cotton shirt. Instead, it felt dry, and soft like a cushion. I kicked, hoping to free my feet. I then realised a sheet had somehow wound itself around my legs.
I opened my eyes to find myself in my room. Once again, I had fallen asleep with the lights on.
A quick cursory glance towards the window told me it was still dark outside. A soft white light threw long shadows across the garden, covered only by the deep blue of the night sky.
I heard it again, that ring of a bell. I knew it wasn’t my door bell. I didn’t have one. I didn’t have a phone either. It was probably the phone out in the hall. Someone would surely answer it, I thought.
I pressed one ear to the pillow and covered the other with my hand, hoping to drown out the noise, even though it became louder and louder. Eventually, it came to a stop and I drifted back into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, I stepped out of my room, ready and dressed for breakfast. A young girl smiled and greeted me, as she walked alongside.
The place seemed eerily calm today. One could hear the usual sounds, people milling about, talking in whispers. A cart bumped into the corridor wall every now and then. Yet, something was off. I could feel it in the air.
The girl helped me to a table and placed a bowl before me. Milk and cereal with a pinch of sugar on top. I let it sit there as I waited. The hushed voices, that had quietened when we entered, started off again.
“You wouldn’t want that to get cold now”, she said. “I made sure it is just as you like it. So eat up.”
I looked up at her and asked, “Where is the other one?”
I suspected she knew what I was talking about. I had seen her around before and she obviously knew my breakfast preferences.
“The other bowl of cereal”, I explained.
Her eyes darted to a point behind me for a brief second. She stepped forward and fiddled with my spoon, checking to see if it was clean.
“She isn’t ready. She will eat later”, the young girl replied.
“What do you mean she isn’t ready? She is always here before me. I will go and get her.” I grabbed the edge of the table and pushed back my seat.
Before I could get up, the girl placed a hand on my arm, stopping me. “She may be unwell, let’s not disturb her. We can get her when she is better.”
Her suggestion seemed to satisfy me, so I lifted my spoon and dipped it into the bowl.
On the way back from the dining room, I insisted we stop at the desk in the hall and enquire.
“Beena hasn’t been in for breakfast today”, I told the administrator on morning duty. “Is she unwell? What happened?”
“Good morning Mrs. Neelam. Dr. Usha has asked that you meet her. She is in her office.” Completely ignoring my questions, she signalled the girl to escort me.
I have always wondered how the people around here behave as if we don’t understand what is happening. They are always trying to keep things from us. Yet, we always know.
I shook my head and allowed myself to be led away.
Dr. Usha has been around here longer than me. She lives in the city and drives out to the Home five days a week. We must not be far apart in age, she being a couple of years older than me, if at all.
I like how she treats me as an equal, rather than a resident patient. She doesn’t beat around the bush, unlike most others around here. She is always straightforward and honest. No wonder I feel comfortable talking to her.
We knocked at the door and she welcomed me into her cosy little room.
“How are you doing, Neelam?”, she asked. I thought she looked a little sad and tired today.
“To be honest, I am a little upset”, I replied. She raised an eyebrow, so I explained. “These caretakers. They never answer a simple question with a straight answer.”
Dr. Usha smiled. “I have told you countless times, you are always welcome to come to me if something is bothering you, or even if it isn’t. We can always just talk.”
“I know.” I relaxed on the couch. “Beena didn’t join me at breakfast today and I was concerned. I tried asking. Neither the attendant, nor that silly administrator you have at the counter told me why.”
“Actually, that was the reason I called you today.” Dr. Usha interlaced her fingers in her lap, seemingly nervous.
Her posture and expression worried me. “Is she alright? You know she has been unwell the past few days. In spite of that, she beats me to the dining room for every meal. That woman maybe old, but she is sly. I never know how she manages it.” My voice dropped to a whisper, “I think she may be bribing someone here.”
Dr. Usha, who normally laughed at my insane theories, simply shook her head.
“Neelam, I am so sorry to have to tell you, Beena passed away last night.” She paused, allowing me a moment to let that sink in, before she continued. “She had a cardiac arrest sometime around midnight. She did manage to press the buzzer to call for help and the emergency doctor was there within moments. Though he tried his best, she was gone before the ambulance even got here.”
I remembered how I had been woken up by a sound in the middle of the night. I had been unable to register then, in my sleep addled state, that it was not a bell. It had been the ambulance siren.
The tears didn’t come immediately. I was heartbroken, no doubt. I had lost my only friend in this lonely place that had been home to me for the past twelve years. But we had both known that our fates had been sealed from the moment we set foot in this place.
We had arrived here within a few days of each other. Two widowed old women, thrown out of their homes like garbage. When Beena’s husband passed away, she had no one left to call her own. After 5 months of hell, with no money and no one to turn to, a distant relative came to her rescue. She helped Beena get access to her husband’s meagre savings, and the monthly pension from his insurance. All the money put together was just enough to allow her to move into this old age home.
I, on the other hand, had come here under better circumstances. At least that is how I chose to see it. Before his death, I had convinced your father to speak with a friend who was a patron of this place. I worried how times were changing. I had seen plenty of cases where a parent left behind by their spouse became a burden to the children. Even though your father discouraged the idea, I insisted on going through with arrangements to reserve a place for us in the event that one of us died before the other.
As much as I had prepared myself for the worst, I was shocked to learn that the love and respect we cherished in our home, died along with your father. I hadn’t imagined that in one day we would move so far apart that my only son would refuse to even bring me to what would be my new home.
Dr. Usha shook me by the shoulder. I realised she had been waiting for a reaction. I felt a lump in my throat. At last the tears came. I cried silently, unashamed.
She handed me an embroidered box. I recognised it as Beena’s. It was about as big as a shoe box. I remembered telling her I was going to steal it from right under her nose someday. It was so pretty, covered in midnight blue velvet with silver embroidery. She would laugh and dare me to do it.
“She left this for you.”
I pushed it away. “No, I can’t take it. It belonged to Beena.”
“She wanted you to have it. Who else would she leave it to?” Dr. Usha gently placed the box in my lap. “She came to me some months ago, with this box and a list of its contents. She asked that I retrieve it from the safe in her cupboard and hand it over to you in the event of her… her passing.”
I opened the lid. Dr. Usha handed me the list which I ignored. I knew every single item that lay here. We had spent countless afternoons in our rooms, feeling every piece between our fingers, re-living fond memories of our past with one another.
It was true. She had no one to leave the last of her possessions to. No children, no relatives. No family at all.
I got up and left Dr. Usha’s office, taking the pieces of Beena’s life with me. I locked myself in my room for the rest of the day.
I thought about how Beena died alone. No one by her side and having to leave her cherished belongings to a stranger. That was what I was in her life. Someone who happened to come along at the end, just to spend their last few years together. Unfortunately, that is all we can afford. Nonetheless, I hated to think that the handful of things to my name would have nowhere to go when I am gone.
I started to pull out everything of value – The little bit of jewellery I owned; a few pictures from your childhood; the key to our house that, I noticed today, has rusted with disuse. These aren’t much to write about. But they are my only memories.
If you are reading this letter, it means I am gone. I want you to know I have no hard feelings. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for the mistakes I might have made, as have I. Life is much too beautiful to burden yourself with a grudge.
I leave you this box of my personal effects. You may choose to keep them or not. I leave it to you. I will have died happy, believing they found a home with you.
I hope that someday we will meet again. That we will be able to laugh and create new memories. Where the sun is bright, the grass is soft, and where the wind plays hide and seek with the trees.
Ashima Jain wins a Rs 250 Flipkart voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the 10 top winners at the end of 2016. Congratulations!