I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
I steeled myself as I heard lock after lock, padlock after padlock, bolt after bolt, open. I did not look forward to these visits. I abhorred them. As it was, I felt like flat beer. Each one of these visits left me with a new hole in my bottle. I wasn’t sure how long I would last.
Why did I count backwards? I’m sure I couldn’t tell you. As far as I knew, there were only two kinds of people who counted backwards, rocket scientists and anesthetists. One did it to launch something, the other to still things. I was neither a rocket scientist nor an anesthetist. At least I didn’t think I was. But these things changed. Sometimes in the blink of a brown eye. But if I were, I would rather be the latter and put things to rest. He, on the other hand, lived in constant hope of launching things. And that was the main problem.
His eyes bore into me. I looked down at my bare feet, pale and wan with lack of exercise.
I knew the drill. It happened three times a day, maybe even more if he was up to it.
He usually came in to bring me food. What was it this time? A ham sandwich? Or shepherd’s pie perhaps? Black pudding? Or something else from another time, another place, that wouldn’t come close to assuaging the appetite of here and now, assuming it existed? Which it didn’t.
“Are you hungry?” he would ask trying to be solicitous. “Are you tired? Are you sick?”
I would shake my head. Tired and sick, hungry and thirsty meant you were alive. That you had some sort of life. I didn’t. I was nothing. I was empty. Lifeless. I couldn’t be what he wanted me to be.
“You need to eat. You have to be healthy, attractive. People need to like you!” He would say in a low sibilant whisper, almost menacingly. “Why isn’t anything I do for you enough? I created you! You are here because of me! All this is because of me!” He would wave his hands around the room. He was right of course. He was the writer, the great Creator. I was only the character, the Created.
‘All this’ was a fair-sized room with a sofa, a love seat, a bed, with some knick knacks thrown in haphazardly. A painting straight out of Jeffrey Archer, a vase from Wodehouse, a table from Georgette Heyer. ‘All this’ was the clothes I wore, sometimes a dowdy cotton sari, sometimes a kaftan, sometimes a housecoat, sometimes a corporate suit and skirt, sometimes jeans and a tee. None of them felt like they fitted me. They all felt like I was trying on hand-me-downs from another era.
‘All this’ was the scenery from the window outside that changed from the deserts of Rajasthan to the snow of Tibet. Again none of it did anything to mask the aridity in my soul.
‘All this’ was fine I guess. Except that none of it was mine. Come to think of it, none of it was his to give either.
Everything was a patchwork from different tales, different stories, different times. I was as fantastic a creature myself – like a hippogriff or a mermaid, a combination of many people, many things, many narratives. I was part Emma Bovary, part Elizabeth Bennett, part Jane Eyre, part Esmeralda. I was a part of many people. I just didn’t know who “I” was.
But wait. Unlike always, he was not coming closer. He was still standing at the threshold. And there was no food tray. I looked up slowly. A mild curiosity stirred. This was different. Different was good.
He was leaning against the oak door – funny, it was glass a moment earlier and I could see him approaching, but as I said, these things could change in the blink of a bespectacled eye – and he was looking at me.
There was no desire in his gaze, there never was. I supposed I should thank small mercies for that. The gaze was always cold, calculating, and business-like.
He was looking at me now calmly, considering. That was different too. When did he ever look at me? I mean, really look at me?
He walked up to me with measured, slow, deliberate steps. He approached closer and closer. He was now standing so close that it was hard to tell where he ended and I began, so close that I could smell his impatience and feel the clamminess of his hopelessness.
“Why can’t you be likable, mysterious, captivating?” he breathed into my ear. I said nothing. What was the point in saying anything? He would make me say what he wanted me to, I would be speaking his words, echoing his impatience and hopelessness. I had no words of my own.
“Why am I not able to make you appealing? Where have I failed?”
He put his hands on my neck. “You know, I think I have invested enough energy in you,” he whispered, “What’s to stop me from choking your beautiful but completely uninspired neck?” he asked me, softly stroking my jugular.
What could I say? Can you kill someone that had never really lived? I had seen the graveyard of other characters that he had killed. Ghosts of people that could have been, phantasms of people who almost were but never could really be, two-dimensional images, replicas of other characters from other books or movies with the hair dyed, and clothes altered, name changed, accent slightly modified, like in a second-rate witness protection programme.
I could feel his breath get a little faster, a little harder, as he contemplated the idea of doing away with me completely. Would that be classified as murder? I knew he had done it before. Sort of.
I would certainly not be the first that he had tried to create and then killed, but I was probably the first that he had invested so much time and energy on.
Death should be a Godsend to me. It would certainly beat mooching around these uninspired surroundings doing silly things that were either unbelievable or unbelievably trite. Death would save me from this horrible room, these visits, these implorations, this hopelessness.
But the problem was, and I knew this for a fact, that I would never really die. He would be incapable of that. He just couldn’t do it. He would donate my eyes, my ears, my tears, my heart, my voice, my past to new characters that would take birth. Like a dozen baby phoenixes that would grow from my ashes. Like I grew from someone else’s.
And as I floated around the graveyard of his plots and characters, I would see a familiar pair of eyes looking at me, haunting me. I would recognize that nervous laugh.
He was still gazing down at me, stroking my neck, looking closely at it. Perhaps he was wondering, calculating, exactly how much pressure it would take to wring it.
I felt his thumb gently stroke the side of my neck, while his other hand moved up and held a bit of my hair. It was dark brown now with a clutch holding the strands in place. He released the clutch letting the hair tumble over my face and touching his.
Something about that seemed to shock him, perhaps the mild fragrance of the shampoo, I didn’t know.
“Why, your neck isn’t quite so pale anymore,” he murmured. “It’s quite rosy and slender. I never noticed it before. I should make you stop wearing those high-necked blouses so often.”
His voice was soft, almost purring. One finger was now on my cheek, caressing it. I could feel the blood pump to my cheeks and could feel them burning. He saw it too and looked with undisguised interest at my face. It felt good. No, it felt wonderful! I stood completely still.
He stopped suddenly and stiffened. The hands relinquished their hold on my neck and my hair. For a moment, inexplicably, I felt alone. That was ridiculous. I was always alone.
He was taking off his glasses. He leaned over and placed them carefully on the mantelpiece behind me. As he did, his chest brushed against my shoulder. The movement was fluid and unbearably sensual. He steadied himself and stood looking down into my eyes. I don’t think he has ever really done that ever before. I didn’t quite know what to do in these circumstances.
I looked back into his, a little self-conscious at first. That itself was a first for me. I had never thought I had a self to be conscious about. I had never seen his eyes before. Not up close. Not like this.
His pupils were brown with grey rims and light flecks in them. They seemed to be so deep, like vast circular rooms with an endless array of mirrors. Fascinated, I continued to look into them, trying to figure out where they ended, as his gaze suddenly dropped down to my shoulders, my hips, all the way down to my feet, which suddenly seemed pale and wan no longer, but almost ruddy. I was wearing something that I had never worn before, never seen before, never owned before, a billowing sunshiny kurta and a diaphanous stole. I had on matching yellow strappy flats with a ginger purse dangling from a golden chain on my shoulder. Everything seemed to settle on me perfectly. I was accessorized to perfection. Whatever was happening?
His hands went back to my neck, my jugular, stroking it with a gentle circular motion. A tip of a finger went back to my cheek. I looked up from the purse and slippers back to his lightly flecked eyes. His pupils seemed ever so slightly dilated. He brought his face closer to mine as he looked even deeper into my eyes. I wondered what colour my eyes were, whether they had flecks as his did, and whether they were dilated as his were. His cheeks were a little bristly, his lips healthy and pink. I wondered whether I was wearing any lipstick, and if I was what colour it might be. I had no mirrors in that room. Funny, I had never missed it, had never had a desire to look into one.
I shook my head, I don’t think such thoughts had ever crept into my mind. I had never thought of him in that way before. I hadn’t thought of him before. At all. Period. Except to dread those visits, retch at the food, and swallow the accusations.
He was looking at me as if he had never seen me before too.
He bent his face to my neck and inhaled my fragrance, his cheeks scratching against my neck. The feeling was not unpleasant. At all. He wasn’t wearing any cologne and smelled of deodorant and soap. His shirt smelled as if it was just out of the wash.
He put his arms around me and held me close. I felt his heart beating, not thudding wildly, just a steady rhythmic beat. An oddly comforting rhythm. I could feel my own heart beat too to join his. Again, I didn’t even think I had a heart, let alone heard or felt it beating.
I wasn’t sure how long we stood like that – heart against heart. His hand suddenly moved behind me. He pushed me gently away.
But I didn’t want to be pushed away. I wanted to stand like that. For all eternity.
He was reaching into his breast pocket for his phone. Great, he was going to make a call! At a time like this! Men!
But instead, he switched on some music. Instrumental. Ode to Joy. “Dance with me”, he murmured. And held out his hands. I tripped into them. We fit snugly. Perfectly. We swayed to the music. I closed my eyes, still seeing the grey rims and the flecks.
When the music ended and it was silent again, I opened my eyes. The room seemed different, suffused with sunlight. The furniture suddenly seemed to have a glow, even the floor boards seemed refreshed and renewed.
I gently released myself from his arms.
“Tell me,” I whispered to him, “What colour are my eyes?”
He smiled, one side of his lips lifting almost all the way up to his eye in a lop-sided almost boyish smile. “Your eyes are the most brilliant ebony, with a twinkle right in the centre. And next to that twinkle, really small, there’s me. But behind the twinkle, way behind me, there’s a lifetime of history.” He looked at me curiously. “But I don’t know what that history is. Yet.”
I smiled back.
“I’m hungry,” I told him.
“Oh, I didn’t get you anything to eat. Can I take you out someplace?” He looked instantly penitent, guilty, and sheepish. Somehow it was endearing.
“I could cook us something assuming there’s a kitchen here someplace? Lachcha Parathas?”
“That sounds wonderful! Are you sure?” he looked surprised that I could cook.
“That’s my comfort food. Goes back awhile. My grandmother had this Pashtun neighbour long ago. She made those soft buttery parathas for everything, when her husband died, when my grandfather died, and when the partition happened. They ate those parathas all the way to Pakistan. My grandmother never saw her again, but she kept making those parathas and so did my mother. It’s the one thing I can cook.”
He looked startled. So was I. I had a history now suddenly, a back-story, and I couldn’t wait to explore it! He looked at me again, his eyes raking my face and settling onto my ‘ebony, twinkling history-filled’ eyes.
“I’d like to hear more about that for sure! Can you wait here for precisely ten seconds? I need to get my laptop. I’ll be right back. Stay right there.”
“Ten seconds? Are you sure?” I was used to a two-dimensional half-existence all my life such as it was. Should a ten-second break bother me?
But there were so many stories I could feel within me, so many moments and memories that were waiting to tumble out, into his ears, through his heart, onto his screen. I discovered that it did bother me. It bothered me a lot.
“Okay then. Ten seconds.” As he turned, something twisted in my heart.
I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”Published in