Monday, September 15, 2008

Distances.

She had a hard time convincing him she didn’t need the book for keeps; it was almost a blow to him. What was she thinking? But for her, the choice was clear, there being none; she knew she hadn’t the luxury to immerse in that big blue book and read. She coaxed him into supplying her with xeroxed copies of four random pages; the numbers she recited to him. He ran up the nearest shop and returned with an envelope. It was ornamented with an elaborate Beardsley at the centre of which a lily bearing her name rose like St John's severed head. Then they parted, and they were almost sad.


She rang him that night to fix up the meeting. She playfully hinted that he, being the gentleman that he was, should arrange everything and not let the lady know any of it; they could meet at her house, but that would turn three others (her parents and her younger sister) into lampposts or ninepins, which was not what they wanted. She had things to say and things to hear; meeting suddenly seemed an insurmountable obstacle, no place for rendezvous. They merely agreed to meet up at a bus stop (though not the one where they had parted a while ago, that would be too obvious) and left it hanging at that. As he was about to hang up, she asked about a few lessons she thought he had merely ‘covered’—he was not like that usually, he never gave any room for a suggestion for improvement. Apart from his an overdose of carelessness—putting him in her hands in each of the examinations—he was perfect and thorough. If he had the good humour, he would have told her that ketones and esters were the last thing on his mind. She suddenly fell silent, and her mien evaporated. The truth hit her like a sledgehammer: he had held up strong until now, it was obviously tough for him. Else he wouldn’t be opening up like this. ‘Be sure to bring me a gift,’ was all she could think. Suddenly he seemed to remember, and collected himself to wish her good night; she hung up feeling distressed.


She returned home to her evening lessons. Five of the worst and unruly boys were waiting on her, talking noisily amongst themselves; she was usually punctual and did not like keeping them an instant more than needed. She was already half an hour late. She had a good mind to excuse herself, but decided otherwise. She found herself doing the imaginary math and come up with a couple of wasted man-hours. Oh dear! She turned the doorknob and entered the bath. Turning on the light, she noticed her haggard face: it looked like she’d been crying, or as if she were stung by bees. Her face was terrible, and her hair was ruffled. Worst of all, she'd just had a bout of acne. It was horrid. She collected water in a pail and splashed it cruelly on her face. She did this over and again, until she was drenched right down to the shoulder and her blouse stuck to her body and the welts showed through. Turning sharply, she took hold of a towel and felt the cold licking of air. It would not be difficult to just go through the lessons and revise, she thought to herself as she emerged from the bath.


Much to the amusement of ‘class’, she apologised profusely for being late. Then she asked them to hand over the workbooks. She followed the same routine as in her school lectures: but she took good care that her wards completed the lessons individually. Needless to say, it paid richly, and she now had close to fifty students on different days; and almost all of them boys. She realized that it was only necessary to get them to work, and they worked willingly when she asked them to. If they worked, they were at least equal to the girls, who were always the more industrious of the two. No sticks here; and the work was rewarding, but an immense and bad reputation it had given her. The nightdresses she sometimes wore before the boys, the state of her skirt…it was probably a bit too much if you paid attention to that sort of thing but she knew she was spat like the proverbial cat. What did it matter, she wasn’t arranging something.


‘What is this Lino? What is this you’ve written for 6-marks? And you call this an essay?’


`Lino’ skulked away, as if he had half-expected the drubbing. She never let up even once, and they always bungled and spilled it in her plate. Perhaps he didn’t get the time, perhaps he’d missed her instructions—


‘For the hundredth time! Essays on a separate sheet, pin them on, e
ssays on a separate sheet, pin. Ah, what's the use! and Mr Lino has decanted three priceless sentences for a page-length essay! Moron!’


Lino was already wavering; the sight of her in a rage was something that made them shrink back in their seats. They usually got on well, and she went to great lengths to simplify the reactions, and almost every other day she found herself repeating the first chemistry lesson in high-school—the balancing of chemical reactions. The boys too knew that they weren’t prime stuff for chemistry, and appreciated the pains she took. It cut both ways.


He opened his mouth to say that he was away with his family to attend a wedding reception…but he stopped short, it really didn’t matter, and even if she struck him with the cane it was all right, it would even out one way or the other. They all loved her like in one voice, they would die for her. She was tiny, she was fragile and had a notorious temper; when she raised her pitch the veins on her big forehead stuck out, and her tightly gathered hair gave her the look of a blazing preacher.


The class soon got underway along more familiar lines. She took a good class, couldn’t be otherwise. She cleared their doubts, which was really about starting from square one; and when she would up class, it was half an hour late. It was ten minutes to ten. She closed her big textbook (she did not teach from the school textbook, she used advanced textbooks) in a resounding thump and yawned.


She watched the boys walking slowly away. They were dropping with fatigue, and dragging their legs. She had kept them waiting far too long. They usually came straight to her house after the evening tea; strapping fellows, and this was the one thing where they admitted defeat and submitted willingly. Something was lacking in the intellectual department that made them attentive to all but the difficult things. But they were easy to get along; exactly the rationale behind private lessons.


***

She tried putting off what would happen the next day. If she were younger, a girl of sixteen or eighteen, she would have rejoiced in a clandestine way only stargazing girls are entitled to. But she was not sixteen anymore, and at sixteen she had found it hard to swallow the bitter pill. How rubbed out she felt! Nothing, nothing at all—came in to announce there was a hope in all this, that she could somehow reinvent her life, or make a new beginning. These were all daft ideas peddled in those potboilers she still found time to read. She knew the difference, yet it no longer stung.


In the space of five minutes she was asleep. Ah, just as well.


***

She woke up with a hangover. Se could barely walk straight, it was like the kick from a swing. Things of yesterday slowly crept into her, instant-by-instant, until when she’d done with her toilet, when she could remember everything that happened yesterday evening with a photographic accuracy. This filled her with a new drive and a new thought that had previously not come to her: she had to get a third party involved, if only as a sanity check, if only to share this with somebody. It was not that this would be so wonderful; on the contrary, she knew it couldn’t last, so she had to preserve it. She was already coping with the withdrawal symptoms.


She thought about what she’d said the day before. She’d said little, but he had said even less and yet sounded so much more meaningful, so big. He was just fourteen or fifteen. That was what made this all so crushing: not that he was younger, but it was exactly that which gave it a context. A man or a boy wouldn’t make such a difference, because it all went through the same process here; but it was inconceivable that such a boy, someone with perhaps no experience, should present it in such devastating fashion. It was all…so gross, and it wasn’t really required. She didn’t carry that much weight, yet her arms had been properly twisted. It was so gross that she knew the immense devotion that went into the making of that catalogue was simply lost.


The catalogue was no longer an artefact, it was more like a businesslike ledger that overwhelmed you with its immense content. She simply could not rub this off, it was too important even if it was but a gesture…but those pages...so many! It was too serious to be a joke. He had even filled it with rough sketches, coloured ones and silver point ones done in art paper, to preserve her memory. And then he’d presented it to her. Was it an undoing or was it just the foundation? She was not one to judge. As far as she could see, he was flotsam.


She slept soundly till 7:00. She usually got up at 5:00 to begin her daily rounds, starting with the tuitions at the centre nearby. In all she was making close to what a state school lecturer was making. Back-breaking work but at least she made it count with the nickel. Popular music from a careworn Walkman in her seedy room stuffed with books and clothes; she’d forgotten how it felt to live like a human being. Life for her alternated between book, class, students, blackboard, the cane and the endless trousseau of cotton saris; she’d inherited quite a few from her sister; they had been quite close. Indeed, she was the only one who really understood why she’d run away; in her place she’d have done the same. (And it was not as bad as all that: it was merely a statistic that she'd eloped with a driver—but he'd been in the military with her father. Gossipy summaries often make the most convenient elusions.) Her sister was pretty and well-mannered; it was not a wonder that such an opportunity came her way. She didn’t grudge her a better life. Saris were her only weakness; she made it a point to choose the most colourful and remarkable designs of cotton sari, and she flaunted her saris with pride.


But today she felt drowsy and her mind was not in anything. Her mother noticed this over breakfast and asked what was on her mind. The four of them sat silently (her mother and sister usually cooked, but she used to cook when she had free time), eating slowly looking at the plates… ‘It's nothing,’ she said and quickly left them bewildered.


She had a good mind to tell them what the matter was…but that would unnecessarily tax the boy, she was almost sure that this would pass, no matter how strongly bitten he was right now. If there was a word she would use to describe his condition, it would surely be love; but love was not a brick, it would pass when it went unrequited. Though only 24, she was his teacher and felt a bit too cold for that. It was not the years; it was the work and the misery that had broken her teen spirit. Two years ago she had been in the thick of it, and wore a pair of jeans to the college day and then to class every day. But that was two years ago—


It was clear that he was in love with her as purely as love could mean to a boy his age; he did not know, and indeed did not care, that she could have her mood swings and be horrid. He even did not know her from up close, her tuition-boys knew better, in a way. A disconcerting thought came to her, and she quickened her pace.


From the distance she spotted him waiting at the bus stop. He wore a chequered shirt and baggy trousers. He was attired casually, something she’d not ever seen her in the past two years; he could only be seen in uniforms even on the last working day of the month, when the students were allowed coloured dresses. It gave him a drab, studious image but she knew him a lot better than that. He simply had no other persona. But today he was attired brilliantly, and any girl would give him a second look. Military greens and a matching, variegated shirt. He had fine taste and a considerable pocket to keep it in; a matching bag was hung loosely on his left shoulder: she was impressed.


He was surprised to see her…not in a sari. She wore a white salwar with seamless pleated pants, she looked wonderfully different. Light makeup did her justice, and he bowed graciously as she came up:
‘You look amazing.’


She jerked her head sideways and his heart skipped one.
‘Thank you very much…and it was as well, seeing that you're yourself armed to the teeth.’ ‘Oh, it’s that bad is it?’Ha ha ha! I was thinking of asking you home if you were in uniform, bookworm!’ ‘Just about managed to save my skin, then.’


The greeting dissolved into a blossoming of light laughter. They looked at each other in a way far different from how they had used to: it was indeed a different beast the the other was seeing, and it wasn't just the dressing. He wasn't having her on; she looked magnetic in the white dress and would have passed for his girlfriend. Young and sprightly, seamless furls disappearing in tapering cones about her slender legs—it was not fashionable right then, it was outdated by a year or two, but it looked just fine on her. She'd worn a new pair of shoes to complete the coordinate look. He was dressed wonderfully hip, and walked upright. In school he would wear a pair of beach slippers for all he cared. He fairly pulled the rug from under her, and she took his breath away. The sting was mutual. Like a couple, they walked away arms entwined, feet tripping, mind rejoicing.

Strangely, they ended up in an ice-cream parlour a kilometre from her house. She used to go there to while away the time, so she was somewhat well-known there. She didn't tell it him; it would be too much of an effort for nothing. She ordered while he went to the washroom. In time, they came clean about everything: if nothing else came out of it, they wanted things to stay, at least the more permanent things. She felt bolstered every minute; she hadn’t been wrong about him or about her own feelings. He was not after that fling, and he still had not hinted at any idiotic frozen-in-time idealism. He knew exactly what he was talking about and so did she and he knew it as well. They had some work cut out between them.


After a while they were talking like they had known each other a long time. The perfume had worn off, and she was slightly sweating above her lip, and moisture sprayed beads which she kept thwarting with one of her innumerable flimsy nose rags. They were both after the same kind of succour—the consolation of words. It couldn’t have been otherwise; both were smart enough to realise how they stood, and how little it would matter had they taken the plunge, both willing and primed, to the unknown. She knew it personally, her sister had gone from one hell to another. He seemed wise enough and in control of himself. She seemed to hesitate a bit before committing,
‘This your first big...work?’


He seemed to hesitate an interminable pause. Nothing else was forthcoming, she was just waiting for it to sink in herself. It was not a snide remark, nor was it a slip. He had to recycle the spurious insight that she wanted to see it that way—

‘I been writing since ’86. Of course, I don't write so for a hobby, no. If that's what you meant.’ ‘To any other I would say “wow!” but to you—I wouldn't make bold as to slight you so—

‘No really, it’s not the words—I suppose you can find the words in your sleep, you realise that much in a single paragraph—but the devotion, the unflinching faith to keep it going…well, you can be quite candid, you know, I know I’m not exactly a cow but I’m no siren either. You need to be really in love with something to do this, be in love as a principle. For the time being, I’m setting away that disconcerting thought that this is about me.’

The spell was indeed broken. They were again businesslike, hovering about the bounds of what was permissible. The unseen forces suddenly cast about their nets and they were trapped like butterflies: conversation flagged, and they began groping in the dark. Marooned in a sea of silence: and they both realised that for the past hour or so, they had lived like two lovers, in perfect unison, looking to see. They had seen the best each had to offer and they were content.


‘It matters aught…what you think, or how you take it. I myself don’t force the thought; it never works that way. You must have noticed that I’ve never worn the ‘Best Student’ badge. I’ve won it probably more times than anyone else…but in my view, that badge should be won by someone who knows its true worth and suppressed…which is what I’m doing. And I like it when you’re occasionally temperamental, flying away when we blurt out a blunder…you can be such a tease. But I must tell you—this is about you, I would do it only for you. You can invent a world of excuses, and as we have both of us rightly observed, a sea here separates us, but that will never blot out the truth, which is that I love you and you mean so much to me. This meeting and these words I take as a supreme gift. I guess I have earned it, and this book is my passport. Yet you returned it without even looking.’


He’d played into her hands again, he was sounding a schoolboy. She was utterly confused now. He gave the impression of being impervious to her words yet deeply hurt by her words—which was it? She was talking freely to him, in a way she’d never done in her life, she was saying things she was amazed she could. She was sprucing up a world she knew was make-believe, just because of him. For an instant she lost the baton, she did not know if she still controlled the things she said.


‘Oh, you cruel man...twist it in, should you! You mean that it means nothing to me? That I’ve been…I clench my heart when I make myself say those things I must. If you were older we wouldn’t need this talk, we wouldn’t need to talk…you are not free. You are not free in much the same way I am bound myself. You're probably too young but you have to deliver, and I get you fouled up—forget what they would do with me—I wouldn’t forgive myself. O no! Yes, I do care about you, and I’ve seen how you see me. I can’t promise you anything…even if it is so simple. I’m worthless and insignificant, but I can’t promise you. It is not mine to give— When will this end! Oh! Don't make me beg! Oh—!’


He slowly reached out both his bands and took her folded hands in his. Moist. And as she turned up her sobbing eyes he said solemnly:


‘This here is a sea separates us; you are right about that and I admit it. Like from a lighthouse your kindness touches me, and I cross the sea to you. This is all I need, this trust and this inclusion, I ask for nothing more. I treasure feelings and experiences and if you know what I say, you will know what to do. Life…is important. With a light heart, I leave.’


Eyes kindly and without malice: she smiled through her tears. She was perspiring and heaving in gulps of air. Nothing remained to be said, their minds were calm. She did not understand much of what he said just then but she would recollect it; it was etched in her memory. She knew hardly anything about him; it was an exercise in finding out how she stood in relation to this new development. Like a girl under the influence, she took his hand and staggered across to the street and into the sun.



[3787; 33 edits; 330 min (180 min for base 3340);
done over five days in three sittings; one of my longest posts by far]

This is freeform—almost dust. The persons remain the same, with status quo unchanged.

Gratis:

  1. {♫
    Metallica—
    Hero of the Day, Bleeding Me, and Outlaw Torn;
    LeftfieldRhythm and Stealth, especially Swords, 6/8 War, Double Flash and Rino's Prayer;
    Jean SibeliusKullervo, especially Grave and Sister;
    Transglobal UndergroundTaal Zaman, I, Voyager, Templehead and Monter Au Ciel
    ♫}
  2. [Raphael]
  3. I hope the special persons in this special story all approve of my noble intentions (amor vincit), and do not pull out at an inopportune moment. This, though is inevitable, it can only be forestalled by such and such a duration and not indefinitely. (Alas! Life is such.)
  4. Best viewed in Netscape Navigator 9.0.0.5/6, on which this was done. Netscape is dead, Long live Netscape!
  5. Or try Safari. It's from Apple and all the rest—but seriously, if you're doing some reading on a browser, Safari renders things best.


2 comments:

vrinda said...

i like the boy.

Zeinab said...

Of course, a girl knows best. But I'd always like to think that the girl (woman) is lovable; the boy is...quite superfluous.