She took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. She finished writing out the reply for the last letter in the lot. And now felt physically and mentally drained after her long day’s work. She had to drop the letters and her replies at Danny’s office first thing tomorrow, now it was his business which ones he would publish. She had done her bit. She often felt doing her practice along with her column (‘Dear Doc…’) was a bit too much but she did not like to back out of anything until she absolutely could not take it anymore, and she did not feel that just yet. She looked around her table; everything was in perfect order, just as she liked it. She frowned at the truant book which peeped out of the otherwise perfectly neat stack of psychiatry books which she treasured a lot. She tucked it back in and felt better. The sharp light of the table lamp then fell on an object which seemed completely out of place. A slightly battered cardboard box, clumsily decorated. It would have stuck out even if the light did not shine directly on it. But instead of being repulsed by the only seemingly imperfect object on her table, she smiled at it fondly. She picked it up to admire it as she had done so many times before. Decorated with tiny stars and glitters and written across its side in rough letters-‘Happy Mother’s Day, momma!’ Her daughter had made it for her when she was only six years old. She had given many such little gifts but for some reason this one held a special place in her heart and likewise on her immaculate table. She now used it to keep her stationeries which was the excuse she gave her daughter who was very embarrassed of her juvenile creation, but in truth she just liked to see it all the time, somehow it calmed her. She quickly placed her pen in her special box, glanced over her table one last time, noticed an unopened letter at the far corner but didn’t bother much. She knew that one could wait. She switched off the table lamp, got up and walked over to the room opposite hers.
She opened the door slightly and saw her daughter, her life, sleeping soundly. She was going to be 11 soon, almost a teenager. The thought filled her with joy as well as apprehension. She dealt with teenage girls on a daily basis, in sessions, through letters; they seemed in constant state of distress. Even though she dealt with them quite well, when it came to her own daughter…she dreaded to think about it. She whispered good night, shut the door lightly and walked over to her own room. She then began her ceremonious bed time rituals-first the all-important bath, in every season with cold water, prayer and the laborious task of unmaking the elaborately done bed. She knew she had a mild touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which had intensified slightly over the past 4-5 years but since she was well aware of it she knew she could keep it within the limits of sanity. Besides, since when has a little extra neatness harmed anyone?
Next day began like any other. She woke up at 6.am like she always did before the alarms could even go off. Brush her teeth and splash her face with water six times, lay out six outfits out of which she would pick one and then rushed to the kitchen to make breakfast for herself and Michelle. Today too she did exactly that and on the way to the kitchen she knocked on Michelle’s door and asked her to wake up. She rarely needed to be told twice, she was very punctual in that way. In 45 minutes she would be down for breakfast. Sarah noticed of late Michelle took a little extra care of her looks, fussed over her hair. Her school had a uniform which she would often complain about but she tried every other way to look her best…trying out different hairstyles, watches and the like. Sarah found it quite amusing but didn’t say anything. In fact she noticed that a casual compliment really brightened her up. Today she came down with her long dark hair scattered around her head and over her shoulders and a truly angelic glow on her face. She smiled brightly and said in her delicate voice, “Mom, could you tie a high pony for me please?” Sarah was mildly taken aback. Michelle refused to take help in most of the things she did nowadays and felt insulted when it was offered. She hid her amazement and just smiled, beckoning her towards herself. As she combed her hair she asked, “You look very happy today! Had a nice sleep?” “Yes,” she said, “And a lovely dream!” Sarah noted the long drawn stress on the word ‘lovely’ and paused to look at Michelle’s face. Michelle developed a mild pinkish hue on her cheeks and exclaimed rather awkwardly, “What?!” Sarah shook her head and bit back her laugh…she thought of her own childhood as she combed her hair…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 times…
Sarah reached her chamber by 9 having dropped Michelle at her school and the letters at Danny’s. She sensed that Danny tried to be more than just her work associate. He would often try to flirt but would back away when he saw no response. He wasn’t a bad person really, jolly, happy-go-lucky, always full of laughs. But for Sarah, it was a matter of principle. She believed in keeping her professional life completely separate from her private life, especially in her profession it was absolutely essential. It’s too easy to get lost in the maze of people and their minds. Though in that sense Danny was pretty safe but still her principles bound her and besides she wasn’t really interested in a ‘relationship’ as such. Her daughter was her world and honestly she was all she needed. She thought of all this in the elevator on her way up to her chamber on the sixth floor. The building was essentially a non-medical office building but she liked the view and by a stroke of luck she found the sixth floor space and she immediately booked it and it proved lucky for her. She has been practicing here for five years now and was quite well known, strictly professionally of course. She bid a polite greeting to Maria her secretary and took her appointments for the day. She inwardly groaned as she saw the long list of names. Mostly there were regulars. She noticed one new name. She enquired about it. Maria said “Oh! Her mother made the appointment for her. She says the woman is in quite a state. I’ve written down the particulars if you’d like to read it?” Sarah said she would and took the little piece of paper, thanked her and walked inside her chamber.
The morning rushed by in a haze. Sarah sat back in her high backed luxurious leather chair, her object of indulgence, with a cup of hot, strong coffee placed on the table by Maria. She leaned back, closed her eyes trying to sort out the clutter in her mind. She had to prepare herself for the next case. After a minute or two, after she felt moderately sorted out, she opened her eyes and checked her list to see who her next patient was. She saw an unknown name and was puzzled for a moment before remembering the conversation she had with Maria in the morning, she started looking for the piece of paper with her particulars. She found it tucked under the desk phone on her table. “Priya, 30”….6 times 5 thought Sarah…, “Recently lost her nine year old daughter in an accident and is unable to come to terms with the loss.” The brief sent a shiver down her spine and unwillingly the face of Michelle flashed before her eyes. She scolded herself sharply and took a sip of her warm coffee which comforted her a little. With a gulp she emptied her mug, closed her eyes and counted till six. When she opened them again she felt much calmer. This would be difficult for Priya as well as herself.
Danny sat in his office enjoying his coffee break. Having sorted out the letters and Sarah’s responses for publishing and with most of his other works sorted, he felt a bit relaxed. He opened his drawer and pulled out a slightly battered Polaroid picture and admired it. It was Sarah’s, taken six years ago when Sarah first came to his office. Danny had found her attractive the moment she had walked in that door. She had come in response to an ad he had placed for someone to write his ‘Dear Doc’ column. He wanted someone to be associated with psychology for the job. He detested riff-raffs who thought advising was a piece of cake. A lot of thought had to go in; the consequences had to be equated, not only for the aggrieved but also for the company. No one wanted law suits to be stacking up as a consequence of a casual advice. Sarah of course was over qualified. A practicing psychiatrist, soon to open her own chamber, but something about her intrigued him. He even obtained a photograph under the slightly false pretense of ‘company policy’. She looked so calm and serene in her blue jeans and formal white shirt. She was always polite but distant. They had been interacting for so long but he knew practically nothing about her except that she had a daughter whose photograph she would carry around. She was an enigma and he was intrigued by her…
Sarah stumbled outside, her whole body shaking as beads of cold sweat broke upon her forehead. She felt hot and cold at the same time. She hailed a taxi…she needed to go home and she could not drive in her state. She sat on the threadbare seat and hid her moist face in her cold trembling hands. Priya had been cold and stony initially as Sarah guessed she would. She wouldn’t speak and seemed as though she couldn’t hear her. Sarah tried to engage her in conversation and in an attempt to do so she began talking about her own daughter. The word ‘daughter’ lit a faint light in her otherwise vacant eyes. Sarah could not believe that she was overruling her own principle, merging her two lives together but Priya’s condition seemed to touch her otherwise seasoned heart. Sarah showed Priya Michelle’s picture. Sarah noticed tears welling up in Priya’s eyes. She waited. She knew she had broken the barrier. For a whole minute silence prevailed in the room. Even the tears flowed out of Priya’s eyes silently. Sarah decided it was enough for the first day and was just about to dismiss the session when a heart wrenching cry startled Sarah. She saw Priya looking around with wild eyes and screaming. And just as suddenly she broke out into a howl simply saying “My daughter…where’s my daughter…?” Her mother rushed inside to pacify her but she was uncontrollable. She fell to the floor and squirmed as if writhing in unbearable pain. Sarah stood frozen behind her desk. She never had to witness a sight like that since she mostly dealt with milder cases. A couple of more people rushed inside trying to carry her out, she did not know who they were but she saw Maria behind them looking quite frightened herself. Sarah felt her legs giving way beneath her and she swaggered out of her chamber…seeing dark spots before her eyes as the words rang in her head… “My daughter…where’s my daughter?”
She did not know how she got to her room…the room swayed…face burned. She forgot all her ceremonies all her rituals and walk passed her desk without inspecting it. The unopened letter still lay unattended. She needed to sleep. She was tired…very tired.
Danny tapped on his watch and brought it close to his ear. He then stared back at his watch. It could not be. His watch couldn’t possibly be working right. It was 9.20 and Sarah hadn’t come in yet! In all the years he had known her he hardly remembered her ever coming even a minute before or after 8.40. And if by some twisted doing of fate she did. She was more apologetic than Danny thought necessary. Danny decided to call Maria. It was Danny who had recommended Maria to Sarah so he knew her pretty well. “Sorry Dan sir, Sarah ma’am has not come in today. In fact even I am a little worried, she looked quite sick yesterday when she went home in the afternoon.” Dan replaced the phone pensively. He began to get worried too. He quickly scrambled through his drawers and drew out his address book. He flipped through the pages and found Sarah’s latest address. He ripped out the page and rushed out the door.
He pulled over outside the door and checked the address again. He had always had her address but never been to her house. He walked over to the door. He noticed the morning newspaper and the packet of milk at the doorstep, seemed strange that a meticulous woman like her could leave it lying around like that. He picked it up and knocked lightly at the door and called out Sarah’s name. No response. He called louder…still no answer. He tried the knob, it turned and the door opened. He hesitantly entered still calling her name and feeling like a trespasser. He walked through the drawing room and saw two rooms facing each other the door of one of which was slightly parted. He hastened towards it with a knot building in his stomach for some reason. He burst through the door and stood frozen at the doorstep. He regained his composure in a couple of minutes and ran out…he needed to make a call.
The ambulance arrived soon and proclaimed exactly that which he dreaded…Sarah was dead. The police had also arrived. Danny didn’t need to be there the empty bottle of sleeping pills and the slashes made on her wrist were proof enough that it was a case of suicide but he wanted to be there. He walked over to the table and as his eyes swept over the orderly table he noticed an unopened letter at the corner of the table. He went to pick it up and was immediately stopped by a policeman. Dan explained the column and that he suspected it was one of those letters. The policeman backed away. He ripped the envelope and drew out the letter. It was dated 5 years ago. He read ‘Dear Doc…’ he was shocked at the neat handwriting he read on…
Yesterday I took my daughter out to the park. She loves it there. She is only six but very intelligent and a nature lover. She tells me she’s going to be a great ‘animalist’ someday…that’s what she calls it. She likes to chase butterflies but never touches them…she knows how delicate they are. Yesterday we planned to have a little picnic and as I was setting it up under a tree I heard her call out to me. She was at the far end of the park chasing a butterfly and telling me how beautiful it was. She ran and ran right into the streets and just as I was going to call her back a speeding truck just crushed her and went on remorselessly. And there lay my delicate butterfly. Dear doc, please tell me it was a dream…it didn’t happen did it? It couldn’t. My angel, my Michelle is alive isn’t she…? Yes. She is alive…she is alive….
Danny thumped down into a chair. In all these years, he never knew. By now the crowd of people had moved to the other room. He too slumped behind them. And entered what seemed like a young girl’s room. Pink paint on the walls, dolls and many, many pictures of a girl from infancy through to age of six…chronologically arranged. And out of the several dolls the biggest and the most life like one lay in the soft adorned bed almost like a real child. Danny rushed outside…his eyes stinging suddenly. And he saw Sarah’s body being brought out…her face calm and serene…the slashed wrist rolled out of the covers and he counted the cuts…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6….