The flight’s arrival was delayed. We kept circling over the airstrip. The depression in the ocean had manifested in a cyclone and landing was risky. The black sky had cracked and roared only moments ago. The vast body of water below us seemed pitch dark. Nothing was visible around it. Thoughts of plunging into it while still strapped to my seat after the jet broke in half hollowed out my stomach. Why had I never learnt how to swim? I never even paid attention when the stewardess explained safety procedures. Would I be able to wear my life jacket on time? It was unnerving and I caged my fear behind clenched teeth. My feet felt the carpet of the floor and tried to locate my moccasins. Had they possibly rolled off somewhere? I tried in vain to calm myself in between deep breaths. It was some time before the city lights snaked under us and we all yawned and rubbed our tired eyes. Through glassy eyes as I looked out of my window, the trees suddenly looked closer. Our wait was over. The tyres screeched as they slapped the tarmac and we landed with a thud. Everyone zoomed forward uncontrollably. The enormous speed of the aircraft after landing always leaves me rattled and did the same that morning as well. I feel like I am at the head of an unprepared bullet that was fired by mistake and would crash into a tree trunk. And remain lodged their forever. To live and die. Air travel freaked me out. It was just my 2nd flight and I already felt what I believe was a near-death experience!
I rang the doorbell and dropped my bags. Nina answered the door. ‘It’s so wonderful to see you!’ she said smiling as tears spilled out of her eyes. She hugged me. She looked the same except for a few shiny silver tufts that had sprouted behind her ears. It didn’t add any years; on the contrary I found her almost unbearably attractive. Life’s vicissitudes didn’t seem to have made much difference to Nina’s physical appearance. She had endless and amazing grace. My heart skipped a beat and all I wanted was to pull her into my arms and stay locked with her forever. Nina! A breath of fresh air. Living without me had been a bitter pill for her to swallow but she never complained. She did everything that life demanded of her. She was a rock that had weathered every storm. She could have given an arm and a leg to go with me but she hadn’t because it was for the best decision for Alex.
She bent to pick up my bags. Then she looked over my shoulder probably checking for Amal and Alex. I felt a twinge of fear. My hair stood on end as I prepared to tell her about the baggage she hadn’t seen. I held her hands and asked her to walk with me to the car. As she neared the car and noticed the cracks on the windscreen, she recoiled and screamed ‘What happened to Alex, please tell me what this is all about!’ I pressed her hand in reassurance and showed her that Alex was fine. He was just sitting quietly in the car with a distant and empty look. She couldn’t fathom what had happened until I asked her to peep into the backseat through the window. She was mortified to see blood smeared all over Amal and nearly swooned away after shrieking. Seeing his mother collapse, Alex hurriedly emptied his bottle of water on her face. Nina stirred and gradually opened her eyes. It all happened within 60 seconds that seemed like an eternity. She squeezed my hands as I heaved a sigh of relief. I stroked her hair saying ‘I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered!
Nina’s forehead creased. Her stricken smile vanished. Amal was our timid and loyal housekeeper. I had known him since I was a child and to think of his cold, lifeless body steeped in his own drying blood was almost nauseating. After I left for the US, Nina had found is quite difficult to manage things. She was emotionally very dependent on me from the very start. Dealing with a teenager, however good our son was, couldn’t be that simple. She had to run errands, keep track of his school activities, watch where he went and meet his teachers from time to time. Amal was ageing. He couldn’t run around as much as he used to earlier. Nina kept him for the most part, in charge of the house and to watch over Alex who he loved like his son. She offered him a lot of my clothes which I had left behind, especially the warm jackets. Amal was a frail man. There was a tweed blazer of mine from high school that he particularly liked. Being a shrinking, frail man, it looked custom-made for him even at his age. He wore it often when he went outdoors. He was now the eldest member of our small family. Some bonds defy blood.
Alex did not know the circumstances around his mother’s unspeakable past trauma and his unwelcome birth. When he was a baby, Nina and I often tried to conceive of a roadmap to eventually explain the past to him when he grew up. That day never came. Amal told me once on the phone that he had seen Nazir making small talk with Alex outside his school. This was after I had been in the US for about 6 months. When I heard from Amal about Nazir getting pally with Alex, I was livid. Not only had he almost ruined Nina’s life and our peace but also tried to mess up our son’s. Being abroad and having burnt my boats with Nazir and his family for all time, I could not fathom how to get in touch with him, leave alone warn him. A voice inside me told me that I just had to thwart his advances. He was coming close to my family again and this time I was not even within touching distance. I felt utter despair even as my blood boiled. I couldn’t think of a solution.
Nazir was my classmate from school and had a crush on Nina who was a year younger to us. Nina and I were deeply in love and everyone knew that we would get married one day. It was just a matter of time. The only one who never accepted this foregone conclusion was Nazir. On the day of our wedding, Nazir had abducted Nina from the salon where she was getting dressed. He had bundled her off to our school and raped her in the boys’ restroom. Amal had seen Nina being whisked away and had followed Nazir’s car but Nazir gave him the slip and disappeared far ahead. Amal frantically came to the church and narrated the incident, stammering through tears. The church crowd ran amok when they heard about the kidnapping. No one knew where to find Nina. The police was pressed into action but not until too late. Nina limped back from school in an old, tattered burqa that she found hanging near the girls’ restroom. She looked like a spectre, blood splattered all over her legs. She wouldn’t speak for hours until finally I had slapped her across her face to break her deafening silence. My parents turned a blind eye to her and simply left after telling me to get a doctor to look after her. They insisted we admit her to a hospital and let her family take charge. I was furious at their apathy. When I told them I would not let Nina out of eyeshot, they threatened to disown me. It was beneath their prestige to have their son wed a victim of rape. We are social animals. We place society even above our kin in matters that we believe are of ‘shame’. We run away even from our children to hide from stigma.
That day I decided I was done with my family. Nursing Nina back to health and repairing her wounded spirit became my mission. Amal assured me that he would help me anytime. He couldn’t leave his job because his family’s livelihood depended on him but he would extend secretly whatever support he could. Nina hardly ate. She spoke even less and slept almost all day. I visited her every day at her father’s house for the first month since that fateful evening. One day, her mother asked me to stay back for dinner saying she had an important matter to discuss. I felt happy for the first time in weeks assuming this was to discuss a quick marriage registration so that Nina could start staying with me. Nina barely served herself a slice of bread before running off to the toilet. I ran after her and saw her clutching her belly and retching into the washbasin. She was crying too. She didn’t say a word and rinsed her mouth. She excused herself after returning to the table because the chicken lasagne smelt ‘repelling!’
Just as I tried to push the thought away, Nina’s mother informed me that her daughter was pregnant. Aunty Noeline then told me that they desperately wanted Nina to move out as one blow after another was just getting too devastating for them to bear with. As they were trying to come to grips with the rape and the police investigation, this news of her carrying the rapist’s child had knocked the wind out of them. For them, this was the final nail in the coffin. Circumstances make people do the unthinkable. I forced myself to believe this was an example.
I married Nina at the local registrar’s office the following month. No one from her family showed up. She had been abandoned and was miserable. She felt sick all the time. My family’s absence was expected as they had ruled out any possibility of accepting her into their fold after the gruesome incident. The only witness we had was dear old Amal who had sneaked out and recorded his presence. Nina’s poor health was worrying me so one night a week after the wedding, I asked her if she had considered a termination. She admitted that she was a victim of such horrific circumstances but saw no reason to snub out an innocent life whose heartbeat she had already heard on the doppler. We never brought it up again. Nina groaned in pain for a straight 48 hours before nearly dying giving birth to a plump 9-pound baby boy in April. I held him in my arms and the moment he curled his soft, delicate fingers around my thumb, I knew I would bring up Alex as my own child. Simply because he rose from Nina’s womb and like a fighter. The labour had been hard on him too. A child gave birth to a father. It was nice to meet the new man I had become.
We tried as best as we could to put the past behind us and move on for Alex’s sake. Nina and I were bringing up Alex as all other parents do. We chose not to send him to our school because of the spine-chilling memories it held for us and its possible repercussions on Alex. He went to another very reputed school and soon became the apple of everyone’s eyes. He enjoyed holiday trips with us and made new friends wherever he went. When Alex was 15 and almost ready for college, I received a job offer from the US that was very hard to decline. They were paying me almost thrice what I made here. My savings every month would see Alex through college very smoothly and still leave me enough even after sending home. It was a hard call to have to leave Nina and Alex but we decided I would take it. The one big clause was that I couldn’t leave station for the first 2 years of my service. Sometimes life makes the choice for us before we can. We give in to it believing it is for the best!
Nina desperately wanted to meet her parents now that it had been so many years. She never quite understood why they had disinherited her and they made it very clear that they did not wish to keep in touch. Seldom do we come across grandparents who never want to meet their only grandchild even once. I was lonely there and kept making plans of having Nina and Alex over to the US for a month’s holiday but Nina kept refusing. Alex was taking extra classes after school to prepare for his college entrance exams. He could not afford to miss them she thought. I did not press and I found it inappropriate to disturb her planning. She was doing it for Alex’s benefit. Women’s intuition and wisdom around their children is unsurpassed. I never questioned it.
All this time, we had thrown Nazir out of our lives though he lingered in our memory. He did not attempt to re-establish any contact. We lived in a locality far away from him. An old acquaintance had once told us that Nazir hadn’t married and had little contact with his own family. He had been exonerated due to lack of adequate evidence in the rape case. His influential father had paid Nina’s parents a lump sum and asked them to hush up the matter for the sake of their daughter’s reputation. Much later we got to know from a guest at Alex’s birthday party, that Nazir’s father was the one who footed Nina’s medical bills after the incident. I never shared this with her. There are things about adults we never notice or understand as children.
My parents had moved to an old age home after selling our property. I had no communication with my father but my mother had made a few attempts to talk to me over the phone on the sly. Kind Nina had shared my new number in the US with her. I felt so forlorn in the US that I often asked Nina to tell mother to give me a missed call from the old age home and I would call back when Dad went for his walks. Over one such call, I ask her if she had any clue how I could find Nazir. She said she would try and find out and asked me to check with her in a week’s time. I finally got his number 2 months later from mother’s cashier friend at the grocers. Mothers have all the answers.
The last time I had spoken to Nazir was at the police station nearly 17 years ago. After a lapse of so many years, he had sounded as cool as a cucumber. There was no remorse or commiseration in his tone. He sounded as flamboyant as ever. Without mincing my words, I told him that the only reason I had called was because I was aware of his recent contact with my son. Nazir knew that he fathered Alex just like everyone in town did. He never made any claims over him. I was surprised when he told me that he was glad to hear from me because he wanted to meet for over some unfinished business. I wondered what that could be as we had nothing left between us. Our only link was Nina but that I presumed had long since snapped. He said he wanted to close a certain ‘deal’ to do with transferring assets to Alex, before leaving permanently for Africa where he had started a chain of luxury hotels.
It had been nearly a year since I had seen my family. With this new development, I decided to apply for a week’s unpaid leave under exceptional circumstances and return home. Nazir had insisted he had very little time so he wanted to meet me just outside the arrivals bay at the airport. He had asked to see Alex then because he needed signatures. Nina was over the moon when she heard I was coming but she didn’t know the story behind my sudden trip. She had a bad bout of gastroenteritis so she couldn’t come to pick me up. That was a very good reason for me to ask her to send Alex with Amal to the airport. Alex stayed in the car because it was parked in a forbidden area. If needed, he could drive it a bit further away. I was delighted to see old Amal after so long. I kept calling Nazir but there was no answer.
Amal wheeled my 2 small bags out of the terminal building and we both started loading them in the boot of the car. It was very late that night and poor Alex had fallen asleep in the car. It was a dank night and visibility was poor. The only bright thing was my thoughts about meeting my family. Just as I was about to enter the car, I heard a deafening shot in the darkness. I shuddered and my cell phone flew out of my hands. As I bent to pick it up, I found Amal lying near the rear wheel of the car. He was flat on his face with his arms splayed out. I shook him desperately. I choked as I frantically rubbed his back trying to revive him. He had stopped breathing. My palms felt wet and sticky. When I smelt them, it was fresh, warm blood. It came gushing out of a hole in my tweed jacket that Amal wore with pride that night. Naseer had mistaken him for me and Amal had paid with his life.