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Sunday, 9 February 2014

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 Short Story

Twilight years

Another day was over. The sun had shone with no mercy. A few wisps of clouds had floated from the coast and made their way inland. Now the sky was grey. The cool breeze was comforting.

The point where the sun had gone down was a riot of gold. The garden, in front of the wide veranda, stretched up to the gate.

Oh either side of the paved path that led to the house, weeping willow trees stood like sentinels, tall and at attention. The rays of the dying sun, as the village folks call it "the rays of the she-devil" painted the topmost branches of the trees, a reddish gold.

In the island that was formed by the bifurcation of the path, several bushes with cream and white coloured roses crowded together.

"The garden has to be attended to, especially the rose bushes. They need to be pruned and manured." She remembered how lovingly her mother had taken care of them. "I am not able to do at least a fraction of the work she did, though I want to see the roses bloom."

She lay in the arm chair in the middle of the spacious verandah, so that she could see the garden up to the gate. It was what she did at this time of the day. Almost every day.

Twilight was her favourite time of the day. The fading light that was about to usher in the night, brought her a serene sense of calm and a shadow of happiness.

The world was retiring, getting ready to lay down temporarily the load of work it carried; families that had gone out on a multitude of tasks, in various directions were coming back to spend the night under the same roof. Even the birds in the weeping willow trees called each other in loud chirps before the shroud of darkness enveloped them.

Weeping willows

The weeping willows seem to be still growing. When her father planted them, many of their relatives had disapproved "Those trees bring ill-luck."

"How could trees bring ill-luck? They are part of nature. Let them grow. When they grow tall, they will add to the beauty of the house." He had silenced the critics.

Now the trees seem to touch the clouds. They reminded her of her father, tall and majestic-looking.

How he looked after his wife and daughter, his only child! He showered affection on them; but he was authoritarian, and intolerant of antisocial behaviour. When she became a young woman, he allowed her to take decisions, only in matters that he approved.

"But .... he should not have intervened in the decision that was to influence my entire life." She often thought of the way he refused to accept her request." No. I cannot let you marry Ravi. Don't ask any questions. That's final." Thus the issue had been sealed. Even after so many decades,n she could not comprehend, why he so vehemently refused Ravi.

Yet, she attempted to find some explanation. Would it have been the fact that she was in her early twenties at the time that made her father to consider her too immature to take such a decision?

Results

Ravi was one of her batchmates at the university. His parents were teachers. His only sister was already married. Manel remembered what Ravi had said, " My parents think that I will do well in my studies and pass out with brilliant results. They like if I get into the Administrative Service."

"And marry a girl with a big dowry?" She had said teasingly.

"No. I have found a girl already."

They had talked about their future while walking in the evenings along the bank of the river that flowed through the university campus. They met in between lectures, went to the library together and shared a snack at the canteen.

It was the first time that she experienced the company of a young man, who became a trusted friend later on. They cherished the times they could spend together and discovered so many interests that both shared. At the end of the first academic year, their relationship took on a novel turn.

One evening, they were walking along "Lovers' Lane" which stretched by the bank of the river, immersed in their own thoughts.

"Manel, I like to tell you something. It's bothering me a lot."

"What is it Ravi? Tell me what is bothering you so much."

Ravi was looking at the river. It was in spate, after the heavy showers upstream. The eddies moved with the flowing mass of water. At last he spoke.

Future

"Manel our lives seem to me like those eddies, travelling down with the current. They cannot foresee where they are heading to. We do not know what will happen to us in the future."

"Ravi though we cannot predict our future, I can be definite about something."

"What is it?" He looked at her.

"I will not forget you."

"Thank you. Over these few years that we have been together, I have grown to love you Manel"

"I know. We'll work out, how we are going to face the future, once we pass out."

"Yes. We have to be brave, especially you."

Through the emptiness of the house Lucy's voice barged into her reverie. "Madam your soup is ready. Have it, while it's still warm." It took sometime for Manel to free herself from the stream of thought that was flowing through her mind. The chiming of the Grandfather clock in the living room echoed across the spacious house and announced that it was 6 'o' clock.

"Lucy, why do you want to serve me the soup so early? Are you trying to finish your work and leave?"

"Madam, could I go a little early before it starts raining? On TV, they said not to be out in the open when it's lightning and thundering. Also my son comes early these days.

I want to cook something for him."

"Why don't you ask him to get married? Then you won't have to bother."

"I have been telling him to bring a wife. But he doesn't want to do that."

"Why is that?"

"He is afraid?"

"Afraid of what?"

"That the girl would start ill-treating me."

"Oh yes. Sometimes it can happen. But is he going to be single all his life?"

"I don't know, Madam. I've told him to get married, while I'm alive, so that I can die in peace."

"Anyway Lucy you are lucky. You have a son to look after you."

Unshed tears

Their eyes met. Lucy noticed that the eyes of her mistress were misty and that she was struggling to hold back the unshed tears.

"Madam we are there to look after you. I came here to work for your parents when I was a small girl. Then you were also small."

"I can remember, chasing you and playing hide and seek with you."

"It was a long time ago, Madam."

"Yes, You are right. I'm beginning to forget those times."

Lucy switched on the lights. She got ready to leave.

"Take some of the food that you prepared for dinner. I'll have the soup. I don't think I'll be able to eat anything else Lucy."

"But you should have at least the vegetables I boiled for you. I noticed that you did not eat much for lunch too. Are you not feeling too well madam?"

"Nothing of the sort. Do as I told you. It's starting to drizzle.

Drizzle

Manel was now alone in the house. She was still lying in the armchair. The drizzle turned to a heavy shower. Peals of thunder were interspersed by streaks of lightning. The weeping willows swayed in the strong wind. There was a sudden crash. " Could that be the old coconut tree at the back yard?" She did not want to examine what happened.

"What am I to do about it at this time? I'll see what I could do tomorrow morning after Lucy comes." The wind was directing the rain drops to fall slant-wise, making them reach the far corners of the verandah. Manel got up carefully, trod the wet floor with the help of her walking stick to walk into the living room, after closing the door. The storm was raging outside.

Yet, she felt cozy, having the soup that was still warm, seated alone at the head of the dining table, where a dozen people had sat and partaken of meals, when her parents were living. She noticed some boiled vegetables too on the table. Lucy boiled vegetables to the exact degree that she preferred. Her mother had trained Lucy to prepare dishes that the family liked.

"I'm glad that Lucy could still attend to the household chores. She doesn't seem to have aged, though she is one or two years older than me." As she tried to get the dish containing the vegetables, she saw an unopened envelope on the tray. "What is this" Lucy would have forgotten to tell me about the letter. Is she also becoming forgetful like me?"

There was a trace of a smile on Manel's face, as she remembered an incident. Once she complained to Lucy about the loss of her pair of spectacles. Lucy looked at her and gently took them off her forehead! Manel took the envelope, but continued with her dinner, eating more than she desired. She had the experience of sleepless nights, when she deliberately reduced the intake of food.

The empty stomach would revolt at midnight. Then she would need a hot cup of milk to fall asleep again. There was no Lucy to do it for her. Tonight with the continuing rain and the cold wind, she wanted to sleep soundly wrapped up in a sheet as well as a blanket.

Dinner being over, she opened the envelope. The latter head, given in bold letters indicated it was from the Elders' Home that she had written to, several months ago. With wavering hands she took out the spectacles from her pocket, and wore them.

The management had received her letter and considered her request. It said that a spacious annex of the home was getting vacant soon and it would be possible for her to occupy it, or reserve it, paying an advance. The figure they had quoted was quite reasonable, she thought. She had waited for this letter for quite a long time "At last it has come. What a consolation."

Regulations

She started reading the second paragraph. "The regulations laid down regarding admissions to the Elders' Home states that, a guardian must declare that he or she undertakes to be responsible for the Elder in times of an illness or accident. The management will inform the guardian in either case."

This was something that Manel had never expected. She had the money to pay for a comfortable annex in the Elders' Home and employ a personal aide to work. She liked specially the possibility of having the company of other elders, when she wanted.

Or be in her unit when she liked to relax. Now the regulation which states that another person, signing to declare that he or she is ready to care for the elder in an emergency may not be a stumbling block for elders who have blood relations. "What can an only child like me, with no sisters or brothers who would have produced some offspring do?

The Grand father clock kept chiming hour by hour. She sat at the dining table. Her mind was not at ease. "Do I have any such person? What about my parents' nephews and nieces? I have had no contact with them for years. So how could I ask them to come forward? They would presume that I am destitute. In a way I am because I do not have a soul to care for me. Then what about my friends and acquaintances? Nalini and Rohini, are overseas with their children who have migrated. My friends and batch mates whom I met at the Golden Anniversary celebration of our entering the university, they told me they had found Elders' Homes and are leading comfortable lives, without being a burden to their families."

Thoughts

Her thoughts turned to Ravi. He was not there at the get-together. She got to know that he had joined the Foreign Service and was posted to many countries. Manel guessed that now he may have retired and living overseas with his family in a foreign country.

"What am I to do? "Her mind roamed. She did not realise the passing of time; hour by hour dragged. Then like a flash of lightning an idea dawned on her. "Yes. That is the only step I could take."

"Lucy and her son? The youngster? Surely they would consider my request or rather my plea."

The storm outside, she did not know when it stopped. There was a peaceful silence. She glanced at the clock. It was almost dawn. She went to bed. In her sleep she heard Lucy saying. "We will look after you."

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