The first thought that came to her as she woke up was that he was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house in whose eastern corner it sat, and the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever.
She felt a strange reluctance to get out of bed. She felt like hugging the bed covers tight, sink deeper inside the soft feather bed as if to say, “This is my territory.” This was something that was most unlike her as she was someone who was always, “Oh, rise and shine. What a beautiful day! What shall we do? Shall we go to the woods with a picnic hamper? Should we explore that new cycling terrain that Anirudh was talking about at Esha’s party? How about we do a gym day together? Or, wait, we can go swimming!
Abhinay would usually look at her prattling off and start laughing. “Hold on steam engine. Aaram se. We could just spend the day lazing around the house, pottering about doing nothing. Look at how well the hibiscus tree is blooming now. Let us go sit outside together.”
Listening to that statement would make Aravinda guffaw every single time. “Sit and do nothing?”
Abhinay and Aravinda were both early risers. They believed in getting their share of the day before the day and life in general took control of them. Abhinay usually lazed around in bed and read for some time, before making himself a cup of strong coffee, an extra strong brew just the way he liked, and sauntered off to sit on the old wrought iron bench under the half-grown mango tree. He loved gazing towards the warm glow of the sun with a steaming cuppa in hand and many times, when Aravinda watched him from her bathroom window as she took her cold shower first thing in the morning, she would wonder yet again, “where is his world?”
“A cold shower first thing in the morning wakes me up like nothing else. And I can’t sit around and laze like you do. What a waste of time!” she would say every time Abhinay said, “Slow down Aravinda. Don’t run so fast that life gets left behind.”
As the freezing cold water hit her skin like a jet on a thin parchment paper, she shivered as always, took a deep breath, turned off the shower and ran to the kitchen in her towel for her tea. She always refused the cup of coffee that Abhinay so lovingly extended. Her cup of tea was what she wanted, a pale, weak broth that she called ‘English tea’, with just a hint of tea leaves directly from the tea estates where her father worked and a generous splash of milk and three spoons of sugar. “Another wake me up,” she would say when Abhinay looked horrified if he ever watched her heap on the sugar.
Sipping the hot tea, she quickly dragged on her track suit, looked around her pristine and clean house for her phone, got her set of keys from the key stand near the front door and ran out. The steaming cup of tea lay half sipped and forgotten on the shoe stand near the door. The bai would come and pick it up as always and clean up the stains the mug left on the old rosewood cupboard that had come with this cottage when they had bought it seven years ago.
“This house needs a kid or two,” Abhinay had once said, when they had been sitting through a really boring family dinner that she had hosted in the hope of getting some camaraderie going in the family. Neither of them really had family even though both sets of parents were very much alive and they both had siblings who in turn had a huge flock going too. Beyond the birthday call that they received from their families every year, there was no further attempt made to paint a picture of ‘family togetherness’. “Look at how lively the house looks. A couple of children playing around would do wonders and then you may not even need to throw these once-in-a-year dinner parties.”
“Can you even see the mess that these people are creating? And they are not even really talking to you. Since when have you become the ‘let us make a family together type?’ I don’t know why I bothered!”
“I really do not understand it either. I am outside if you need me.” No one noticed Abhinay get up slowly and walk out towards the wrought iron bench under the mango tree. He did not come back in even when the family left, having forgotten that they had to at least give him a perfunctory hug before going out of the cottage.
“He just loves sitting there,” Aravinda had excused him lamely, all the while wishing that she was far away from this bunch of people that she had once lived with, grown up with and supposedly known closely as family. As she banged the door shut on the last of the departures for that night, she had sworn that this sham would not happen again.
That had been the last time that Abhinay had broached the topic of having children. He never brought it up again. He never said anything.
His silences bothered Aravinda but every time he fell into those bouts of silence, she would try to fill the gap by being even more bubbly than usual. Gradually, he even stopped smiling when she reeled off the long list of plans she had made for the day. Days passed by, filled with the same usualness, the same plans, the same routine. The red hibiscus tree began to lose its leaves with the approaching autumn and the beautiful red that usually greeted them at their bedroom window was hardly ever visible. The half-grown mango tree lay stunted as always, its work done for the year. Time for hibernation after a long season of bearing fruit.
Abhinay had to go away on work for a few months and while he was away, Aravinda found her chirpiness just a little dulled round the edges. Days passed by and calls from Abhinay became fewer and far between. She found herself picking up a book to read in the morning and enjoying the smell of freshly brewed coffee. She never knew when she had actually started making her way towards the wrought iron bench, but one fine morning, she found herself sitting on the bench, steaming cup of coffee in hand, gazing towards the warm glow of the sun. Despite the winter chill that had set in, the mango tree still stood majestic against the horizon and sitting under the mango tree that one early morning in winter, she found herself yearning for that strong shoulder to lean on. An unknown feeling of lonesomeness crept into her senses and awakened her to something that she had never given herself time to fathom – the need to feel complete, the desire to just sit down a bit and smell the coffee.
Aravinda got up slowly and reluctantly to get ready for work. She had a few meetings lined up for the day that she could not possibly miss but she definitely had time to make a call. Her parents, when she called them, said that they were just leaving to the airport for a long awaited family holiday. “Beta, we are all going together for a week, your sisters, their families and your Papa and I,” Mama said. A small pin prick somewhere in her heart said, “They never thought to ask you if you wanted to go for the holiday!” She brushed the thought aside and said as if by rote, “Have a safe trip and a great holiday.”
Looking at her wrist watch, the sleek Fitbit that Abhinay had gifted her for their sixth anniversary, she decided to make one last call before she left home for the day. “Aravinda, is everything okay? Abhinay is well? Is this about the annual get together?” A few pleasantries exchanged, Aravinda hung up the phone feeling rather as if someone had just punched her in the stomach. She had never gotten to know Abhinay’s family at all. Whatever little connection that Abhinay had with his folks, he had lost after marriage as Aravinda had disapproved. They were now just polite strangers who showed concern from a distance.
“Please cancel my meetings for the morning. I will, however, make it in time for the afternoon call we have with the President of Motachiki Corporation.”
Getting into bed and hugging the bed covers close, Aravinda tried the number of the one person she had always called her own. Family or no family, Abhinay and she had always been together and she loved him. “This number is switched off or not reachable right now……………” Drat! The same message that Abhinay’s mobile phone had kept reeling off in the past two weeks since she had last spoken to him. Worry crept into her eyes. Not for his well-being. She was sure that he was perfectly hale and hearty. She was worried that she could no longer reach him, reach out to him.
A singsong beep alerted her of a new email. At last! News from Abhinay!
The email was short. It just said that he was not coming back a life that was lonely and empty.
Aravinda sunk deeper into the soft feather bed and looked out the window at the red hibiscus tree that was no longer red and the half-grown mango tree that looked so stunted as if someone had told it sternly not to grow. They had planted them both together, Abhinay and she, perhaps the only things that they had together given life to. She knew she could not continue staying in this cottage anymore and face the barren garden ahead, a garden that could have bloomed beautifully if she had held Abhinay’s hand and sat with him under the mango tree, her head on his shoulder.
But for now, she hung on to the bed for dear life and stayed there all day.