Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be Prepared!

(Another story written for the Writer's Group. You can read an earlier one here.)

If you happened to run out of sugar for your morning cup of tea, or perhaps, needed a candle when the lights went out, or even, if you wanted to refer to last week's newspaper for some reason, there was only one person to contact - 'Eveready' Marie Braganza.

Most people in the seaside village of Kasaulim called her that, and truthfully, she didn't mind. She'd lost both parents when she was barely a teenager and the responsibility of 8 younger siblings had fallen on her tender shoulders. She'd learned early on that the only way to stay in control (and stay sane!) was to plan for the worst and take pre-emptive action.

So even today, you'd never find her without her black, folding umbrella. "But what if it rains?" she reasoned with Joachim the gardener, when he pointed to the cloudless sky. If you asked, "Marie, got a safety pin?” she'd counter, "Which size, dear?" If someone coughed in Church, he'd quickly find a Halls lozenge pressed into his palm.

As much as they admired Marie, the people of Kasaulim also felt a little sorry for her. Especially when every Friday evening, she hobbled over to Mac's Laundry, with a bundle of clothes tucked under her arm.

"Hello Mac, fine evening, isn't it?" she said, just like she did every week. "I've bought Arthur's shirts to be washed and ironed. Remember, not too much starch. And pay attention to the collars."

Mac would nod solemnly and toss the clothes onto the laundry pile. When Marie would leave, he'd look at his assistant, Joe, and both would silently shake their heads.

Arthur Braganza had gone out to sea in his fishing boat two years ago, and had never returned. The Coast Goard had mounted an extensive search operation. Even the local fishermen went as far into the sea as their boats could take them. But neither Arthur nor his boat was ever found. The old timers reckoned that a strong wind had carried Arthur and his boat into the high seas.

Marie took the loss of her husband of 32 years quite badly at first. She simply lay in bed, refusing to meet anyone. Even Fr. Victor was turned away. The Ladies Prayer Group brought her casseroles which they found unopened. Marie had simply given up on life.

And just when the people of Kasaulim began to fear that she was slipping away, Marie inexplicably and serenely bounced back. James and Dolores, from the green house across the compound wall, were the first to notice that she was back to her usual routine. The fish market in the morning, siesta in the afternoon, St. Jude's Church in the evening.

Everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief, but that soon turned into a gasp of dismay.

"Two mutton cutlets, please. Arthur loves the cutlets for lunch," she'd tell the nonplussed counter salesman at Chic's Cold Storage. From her kitchen window, Dolores began to spot Marie talking to the empty rocking chair in the house. Disconcertingly enough, she was going on as though Arthur was still a part of her life.

“Maybe that's her way of coming to terms with Arthur's death," Dr. Kamat told Dolores and James. "Give her time, and she'll move on."

But two years later, Marie hadn’t moved on. Greeting cards would still be signed off with ‘Love, Arthur and Marie’. His black leather shoes would still be polished every day. And a plate would unfailingly appear on his side of the table at meal times.

Initially, people shuffled uncomfortably when she spoke of Arthur in the present tense. But over time, they came to accept her delusion. In every other way, she was still the helpful, generous 'Eveready' Marie they'd known. So they merely nodded indulgently when Arthur popped up in the conversation and shook their heads later.

One wintry evening, Marie was shuffling home from Mac's Laundry, when a fierce wind began blowing in from the sea. The sky turned dark and foreboding. Soon, fat droplets of rain began pelting down from the sky. People bounded to the nearest dry spot. Only Eveready Marie shook open the folds of her black umbrella, and continued walking. The sudden shower brought with it deafening thunder and lightning. Children howled and rushed to hide under their mothers' skirts. Shopkeepers downed their shutters in haste.

"Marie, hurry up. A storm is coming in from the sea," shouted James, as he grabbed her elbow and led her up the garden path to her house.

Marie reached her doorstep, shook her umbrella, and stepped inside the house. The lights had gone out, but it didn't faze her. The candles and matches were in the rosary drawer just next to the door. She lit a dozen candles and placed them in saucers all around the house, and then took one candle to the kitchen to ready the supper.

Suddenly, the front door crashed open and an icy gust of wind blew into the house. Marie rushed to bolt the door and had turned to re-light the candles which had gone out, when the front door crashed open again. Marie whipped around with a start, her chest thudding. Hadn't she just bolted it securely?

And that's when she saw someone move near the main gate which was wide open. James must have come back to close it, she thought. A sudden bolt of lightning illuminated the area, and she recognised the silhouette coming up the garden path. It wasn't James. Her body went limp, and she stared unblinkingly, unmindful of the uproar caused by the rain. She slowly backed into the room as the shadow inched forward towards the door.

The rain pelted into the living room, creating little puddles near the entrance. But Marie couldn't bring herself to shut the door. She felt the couch behind her and sat down heavily on it, her eyes peeled on the shadowy figure now almost at the doorstep. Through the flickering candle lights she saw him, clothes ragged and soaked, seaweed clinging to his bony, shrunken feet. A thick stench permeated the room - the smell of the sea mixed with the odor of decay.

"You’re late," said Marie, a slight tremor in her voice. "I've made roast beef for dinner," she continued. "And change into a dry shirt. Or you'll catch your death of a cold."


Anonymous said...

Hope is not an Illusion :-)

Comment : After hoping for 2 long years, and it coming true, one would not be able to speak .. or tell the other that they are late ....

Should have left the end part without conversation ...

Last Mallu in Dubai said...

Simple, gripping, haunting. And shades of Old Man and the Sea... been hiding this one, too?

Anonymous said...

Leela, touchingly realistic fiction indeed !! enjoyed reading and feeling!!
thanks and keep it up!


Leela A said...

Anon: Thanks for the feedback.

Last Mallu: Been in hiding, you could say. :)

Marline: Glad you liked it. Thanks for your feedback.

kaa said...

great storytelling. you have got a new fan :)

Anonymous said...

I thought it was Beautiful, I never stop to read this crap. :)

Leela A said...

Kaa: Thank you. And so do you :)

Anon: I'll take that as a compliment. :)

SwB said...

wow! that last bit actually gave me goosebumps.

Leela A said...

Saltwater Blues: Thank you :)