[Warning: Long post ahead]
April 1st. The first time she noticed. It was the beginning of Spring. She had been walking down by the river, her mind clogged with worry. The happy chirp of birds, the quack of little ducks, the constant hum of traffic on the road – she didn’t hear any of this.
The image that kept haunting her mind was that of her lost son. The apple of her eye. Lost to her. A teenager, wholly engaged in a world of his own. A world that she wasn’t allowed to enter any longer. The little that she noticed was enough to unnerve her. Wild eyes, pre-occupied and vacant all at the same time. A bunch of supposedly-cool friends, who smoked cigarettes and roamed around the streets, drawing attention by their raucous laughter. He didn’t do any of that, she was sure. Rather, she hoped! But she knew it excited him. It was only a question of how soon he would begin! School progress reports, if they were any indication of a boy’s potential to succeed, held forth very little promise for him!
She had been lucky enough to marry the man she had fallen in love with. They had been friends at college, and had simply decided one day, to spend the rest of their life together! Two happy years later, ‘parenthood’ had overtaken every other relationship. They did not try much, the inevitable happened. She devoted herself to their little son, and he, to his work. They spent their lives in the sort of companionability that borders on solitude.
As she set out on a walk that day, she admitted to herself, for the umpteenth time, that she was now totally and completely alone.
The path she took was by the river, flanked on one side by old residential apartments where she had spent almost two decades, on the other by shiny new skyscrapers.When the skyscrapers were built a couple of years ago, she would spend hours fantasizing life in those swanky apartments. Large French windows allowing for plenty of light, comfortable sofas that couples snuggled in, savouring the closeness of young love, tasteful pieces of art adorning white walls. Today she didn’t so much as glance at them.
‘Quack.. quack..’ – startled, she turned around to look. A couple of little black ducks had swum close to the barrier. Both made identical motions of lifting one wing and ducking their head under. She let an involuntary smile. Many an evening had she spent, walking her little son by the river. He would first pretend to walk slowly, and the moment she loosened her guard, would set off into a little gallop that she could not often match! Often, he would tumble, scraping his knees and elbows, and would run straight back to her to be pacified. She would give a gentle kiss, and Voila! The wounds would magically stop hurting! She had lived a content life. Albeit lonely, for the best part.
She walked up the stairs that led to the main road. Behind her, the sun was setting. It was time to head back home.
That was when she noticed.
A gentle presence. Almost imperceptible. Following her, very softly.
As she turned the corner into a narrow lane, the dark figure loomed up right behind her, then in front, almost in a rush to overtake. For a moment, she thought it was just an office-goer anxious to reach home. But as she watched, the figure grew larger and larger in proportion. She almost gasped in surprise.
She tried to ignore the figure and quickened her pace. But you couldn’t ignore a presence that looked ominous and blocked your path, could you? Small head. Bulky arms. Enormous hips. One could hardly notice the divide in legs. It could have well been just one gigantic stump.
She turned around – a complete circle. Nobody. She hurried in the direction of her home, and tried to think of the dinner she was to prepare that night. Parathas, dal, salad. She simply couldn’t focus. ‘Is this an April Fools Day prank?’, she wondered.
An hour later, she was in her kicthen, rolling parathas – watching them grow from a small ball of dough into a large circle. She felt uneasy. There was a nagging thought at the back of her mind, and she couldn’t put her finger on it.
As she worked, and slowly manouvred her way through the kitchen, the doubt in her mind had grown into a near certainty.
‘It CANNOT be!’ -in her mind, she cried piteously. ‘No! It can’t be!! Simply NOT!’
A voice in her head hummed very softly, ‘It is. YOU KNOW it is’.
She did not mention the incident to anyone. Who could she talk to, in any case? Her husband, who would be glued to the television? Or her son, who was statuesque in front of the laptop! She decided to skip her evening walk the next day.
April 4th. She took a different route this evening. A slightly crowded path that meandered through old residential complexes, new office buildings, and a noisy children’s playground. The playground was the last stop in her hourly walk. The high-pitched sound of happy voices cut through the trees and pierced her ears. She stopped to steal a quick glance at the children and their mothers. The sun was setting.
Suddenly, she was besieged. Again. The figure manifested out of nothing. And loomed up right in front of her eyes.
‘Run’ – she thought she heard a whisper. But her feet wouldn’t listen! Left with nothing else to do, she stared. Unblinking, jaws open. She took in every feature she could. Those gigantic arms and hips that seemed to crush the cavity of her chest! Those heavy legs that dangerously tapered towards each other, threatening to collapse to the ground.
‘You cannot escape… I am BACK’ – it whispered ominously.
A chill ran down her spine. ‘Back for your Birthday, remember?’
The sun set. The haunting ended. Liberation!
April 5th – 6:00 am. Her birthday. Only her mother remembered. She had called, as usual, first thing in the morning. As she stepped out of her apartment, she turned to look. There was nobody following her. No one ahead either. It was too early for even regular joggers! She stopped at the river to savour the smell of fresh air! Pleased, she wound her way back to the playground where she had spent the last evening. The morning was exceptionally bright. ‘A lovely day’- announced a jogger as he raced past. She nodded very briefly, but smiled. He looked strange. A gigantic bald athletic figure. She hadn’t seen him in the neighbourhood before.
That was when the earth gave way beneath her feet. Passers-by quickly rushed to help her up. ‘Thank you’ she muttered, and tried to hobble. She saw an old wooden bench, and sat down to take a few deep breaths. She didn’t realise how long she had been there, until she suddenly noticed that the sun had risen in the sky and it was almost scorching.
She noticed it again, then. Not as enormous as before, but looking short, squat and more ugly than ever!
‘I’m tired! Go away!!’ she muttered. It stayed. She balled her fist and struck hard. ‘Aarrrgh!!!‘ The bench on which she sat trembled slightly. A small dark figure scurried away from behind the bushes. A cat, perhaps. Or a rabbit! Something that could sense the rage building inside her, and had made a wise escape.
She punched the bench again, and again. Then heaved herself up, and stamped hard into the ground beneath her feet. She took off her trainers and smashed them. ‘Leave me alone!!’ she screamed. Kicking, stamping, screaming. ‘You’re disgusting! You fat bi*ch!!’ Saying that, she actually felt sorry for the figure. People walking by stared in horror.
And with that, she sunk back into the hard weather-beaten bench. She was sobbing by then. She hugged herself tight and cried her heart out.
When she was entirely spent, she rose again, composed.
‘Where have you been?’ her husband asked. Lines of worry had formed on his forehead. ‘Are you alright?’ She nodded. She allowed him a very brief hug. Strands of hair fell about her tired face.
‘Mummy, where did you go? We were worried!’ She looked startled. When was the last time he had spoken with such gentle care? She just couldn’t remember. He helped her to the sofa. A single tear streamed down her face. He gave her an awkward hug. She hugged him right back. Her husband joined them, hovering around like an eagle guarding his nest.
‘This feels great’ she smiled to herself.
‘Happy Birthday .. darling’ he added with a little hesitation. ‘Thank you’ she whispered.
‘So Mum, what gift would you like?’ her son added unexpectedly.
‘I already got it – just this morning’, she replied, enjoying the brief excitement that sparkled in his beautiful eyes.
Man and boy stared at her, clueless.
Later that day, she reminscied the events in the park.
‘Just go away!‘ she had cried.
‘NO! I am here to stay. And its YOUR own fault. Remember?’
She did remember. She did remember that the last time she had taken care of herself was about two decades ago. The last time she had worn a pretty summer frock was just before she got married. The last time she felt good about herself.. she couldn’t remember that one at all.
The figure in front of her eyes was larger than life. It was her haunting. Her retribution, for not having taken care of herself.
The figure was her shadow.
The pitiable shadow of a pear-shaped woman who seemed to wobble on tiny feet. The unpresentable shadow of someone who just threw on a crumpled cardigan and did not even brush her hair. The sad shadow of a lonely woman, who had forgotten the most important person in her life – herself.
‘It IS me… it IS you…’ – it whispered through her tears.
‘I don’t deserve this..’ she cried.
‘You do. And you don’t! But you still have a chance. Undo what you have done!’
‘Who ever FOR?’ she thought wryly.
‘You will see…’ said the shadow, and disappeared from wherever it came.
As the husband left for work, and the son, for school, they both walked up to her and gave her a peck on the cheek. This time, it wasn’t an awkward action. Genuine, happy smiles on dear faces. She smiled back at them. ‘I love you!’ she thought, but didn’t utter the words.
‘Luv ya, Mum’, her son spoke first. ‘Love you, darl’, her husband bashfully added. ‘I love you too!!‘ she cried out and gave her son a big bear hug. He promptly wriggled out. Her husband was a little more accomodative. They left almost immediately. Without bidding farewell, as usual.
‘Come home early?’ she asked longingly. Her son had already dashed out. ‘Er..will try.. but YOU have a great day!’ her husband muttered absent-mindedly, while wearing on his jacket for work.
‘I will’, she replied.
Life was back to normal.
‘I certainly will’ she repeated to herself.
When they left, she noticed a little gift-wrapped box lying on the table. Silver foil, pink ribbons. No gift tag, No sentimental message. But she was not disappointed. This was just they being themselves! Like she was herself too!!
The present was far more beautiful than she could imagine. A beautiful shiny I-touch. She would carry this on her evening walk today, she decided.
The light from the kitchen window fell on her, casting a long shadow on the wall.
She did not feel afraid to look at it any more. It was real. As real as she herself was! Slowly, her eyes moved from the shadow, to the framed canvas picture that was partially hidden behind the huge TV screen. Taken a decade ago. Theme : Red! It was a beautiful picture. A family portrait.
With some difficulty, she pulled it off the wall. Some of the paint chipped off and fell to the ground. It didn’t matter. She stared. At the lady in the portrait. A familiar face, but unrecognizable at the same time. A gorgeous woman! Eyes much like her son’s. She traced a finger on the outline of the family.
She turned back slowly, to look at the shadow.
‘I WILL get rid of this giant’, she said softly.
‘Who ever for?’ – the shadow teased.
‘For ME!’, she answered with steely resolve.
‘For me! Happy Birthday to ME’, she smiled.
(Girls and guys, this was in draft for long, and somewhere I think I got lost. Please point out where…. Thanks!!)