Aparajita Sen


I slowly float upward towards the surface of sleep. My lids are gummed, and I struggle to open them, gently, like skimming the skin from boiling milk. As I struggle, a part of my consciousness registers the sound – tap-tap – tip tap tip – like a Morse code tapped out somewhere. Dot dash dot – dash dash dot – I shake my head in confusion. I feel lost. It is true that in the past month I have been sleeping in strange beds in strange rooms, and for a few minutes I can’t quite figure out where I am. Slowly the contours of the room come into focus, convincing me that I am at home, in my own bed. I glance at the bedside clock – its radium dial shows 3 am. The sound was like a gentle knocking, so I check the window – I have a tree under the window, and its branches sometimes grow long and tap against the window of a windy night. But I could hear no wind. It can’t be the front door – my dog wouldn’t lie quietly if someone came to the door. I look around in the dark room as the sound starts again. Only then I realize that the noise is coming from the alarm clock. I take a closer look, not bothering to switch on the light. The alarm button is on the ‘on’ position; the radio is sleep mode – as it should be. I am really annoyed – now it would be a real struggle to fall asleep again. I move the clock sideways, away from me, and give it a resounding whack. The sound stops immediately. I rearrange my pillows, pull the covers tight around me and go back to sleep again – deciding to take a closer look at the clock the next morning. ‘Maybe the batteries need to be changed’, I tell myself while falling back into the fuzzy warmth of sleep once again.

The clock radio goes off as usual in the morning, and in the mad rush to get to work, I forget all about the incident. Totally. The day goes off like any other day, oscillating between mundane and exciting, useful and useless. I return home and take the dog for a walk. In a burst of energy I cook dishes I would be too tired to eat. I collapse in a heap in front of the TV and drift gently to sleep watching a film too silly for words, my dog sleeping with her head on my feet.
I wake up with a start to find lights blazing everywhere. The ancient clock on the front room has stopped again, but from the silence all around I judge the time to be well past midnight. I hastily shake my dog awake and rush through the house, switching off lights, locking doors, closing shutters. I fill up the water bowl in the kitchen and somehow make it to bed like a zombie. The bed feels cold at first, but soon warms up as Hypnos gently embraces me and the real world disappears rapidly…. I wake up next morning as the alarm goes off, as fresh as a daisy, ready to take on whatever challenges came my way…

This state of bliss did not last long. Three nights on the trot now I have been woken up by the persisting beeping of my alarm clock. I have changed the batteries, checked the wires, and asked my savvy colleagues what the problem may be. They are as clueless as I am, and the only piece of advice I get is to replace the clock. Typical – I think, of a throw-away consumer economy. If you don’t like it, chuck it – that is the broad philosophy of the society I live in. So I soldier on, gritting my teeth and cursing the damned clock. When the accursed thing beeped on the fourth night, I sat up in bed, switched on the light and the radio, expecting a total silence- who on earth listens to the radio at 3 in the morning? Well, apparently, people do. A seductive voice was talking about something on the radio. I rub the sleep off my eyes and try to concentrate – ‘this is your lucky day, Gemini, so go ahead and seize it. Wear pink, your lucky color today. Don’t hesitate to say what you think’. I turn the radio off in disgust, and settle back under the covers. Soon I am asleep again, and had completely forgotten about what I heard on the radio when I woke up the next morning.

It was my colleague Michelle’s birthday. We had spent a lot of time choosing the restaurant we would take her to and a few small gifts. The lunch was a riot, and Michelle was really happy. ‘I love that pink on you’, she said on the way back. ‘You should wear it more often. It really sets off your coloring’, she told me on the way back. I smiled, and then there was this small jolt in my brain. Pink? I had picked up the clothes at random that morning, without really noticing what I pulled out of the cupboard. Where did I hear about wearing pink recently? As I returned to my desk, I found a note from my boss asking me to see him as soon as I got back. I put down my handbag and rushed to his office in a panic – I hardly ever get an urgent message from my boss.

He was on the phone when I knocked & entered. He waved me into a chair till he finished the conversation, which meant absolutely nothing to me. I waited patiently, and at last he turned his swivel chair to face me. ‘I need you do something for me urgently’, he said, ‘you need to drop everything else and go through this case file. I have to go to the court at four – you have to give me all the arguments I need to sue the borrower’. I stare at him in dismay – I deal with very straightforward cases – car loans, student loans, and simple mortgages – nothing that requires going to the dreaded arbitration court. ‘What does this involve?’ I stammer. He looks at me impatiently; ‘You’ll find out. I have no time to explain. I need the note by half past three’, he said, thrusting a thick file under my nose. ‘Oh, you can do it, believe me’, he adds, ‘after all, you were trained to be an analyst, weren’t you?’ I take the file and stand up to leave. ‘By the way, you do look good in pink, you know?’ he says as a parting shot, turning on that boyish charm we all loved & hated. I return to my desk dazed.

We won the case, and there was a lot of ragging in office as to how I had become the favorite employee of our maverick boss. And that night, the radio beeped again. I don’t even remember turning on the radio, but I hear the male voice – ‘this is only the beginning. Listen with your heart and you shall succeed. As you sow your seeds, so you shall reap’.

From that day onward, my radio regularly woke me up in the dead of the night. I did not remember exactly what I heard, except that whatever was said was embedded in my unconscious. I found myself using strange pieces of information during my workday - facts, numbers, snippets about people and companies and politicians, public or private scandals – I didn’t even have to exert myself. My rise at work was meteoric – everybody acknowledged that I had an uncanny intuition when it came to complicated cases that our bank dealt with. My boss, and his bosses, started giving me the more complex dossiers. I just sailed through them all. My colleagues started treating me differently. I missed the easy camaraderie of the past, but basked in the new aura of importance. ‘I am getting what I deserved all along’ – I told myself. I stopped feeling rankled at not being invited to cozy office parties, the impromptu picnics on the bank of the little canal that flew in front of our office, the sneaky lunch hour shopping forays. I was being courted by my hierarchy, and even better, our client Gods, who wanted me to deal with their tricky slimy cases. I was now invited to after hour cocktail parties with clients, dinners in posh restaurants, classy night clubs, occasional trips to operas and theatres where tickets couldn’t be obtained for love or money. I gradually lost all my friends in office, but I did not mind in the least. My only friend was on my bedside table – the two bit alarm clock I had bought for a song, that continued to guide me through my ascension.

The only drawback to my idyllic existence was Rohan : Rohan, who spent his time in the squats, working with the hopeless homeless drug addicts though he had a degree from one of the Ivy League Colleges. I thought I loved Rohan, but he now started getting on my nerves. I could no longer stand his timid and gentle love making, his patience and his kindness. I wanted more excitement, more extravagance. After all, I could afford it now, thanks to the generous rewards that my company now gave me. I wanted to show him the places I now frequented, the seats of power and debauchery. But I didn’t tell Rohan anything either about the radio or about the change in my working life, so he was totally puzzled about this sudden change in my lifestyle. We started arguing more and more frequently and things started getting tense. Maybe I should have talked to him - he would have probably listened to me with an open mind. But I was strangely reluctant to let him think that my professional success was due to some surreal phenomenon that I couldn’t even explain. Rohan never asked me to reconsider. He just left one morning, telling me that he would be back if I ever needed him.

I was in a foul mood as I set off to work today. I was up till the wee hours for the last couple of nights, waiting for the radio to come to life. Not that there was any real crisis, but I had grown strangely dependent on the different voices speaking to me in the dead of the night. I still didn’t understand exactly what was happening but it had stopped disturbing me. I had called up my old school friend when this thing started. My friend, a high flying scientist in radiophysics had made a huge joke out of it and asked me to stop reading thrillers for some time. She also advised me to drink a tisane or some other calming draught before going to bed. She was sure that it was my vivid imagination playing tricks on me. I didn’t tell her anything about what was happening at work. I didn’t talk to her about Rohan. We hung up after the usual promises of really catching up one of these days. Since then, I had not spoken to anyone about it.

Morning was just breaking over the flat fields that surrounded the village I lived in. There had been heavy dew last night, and the grass bank bordering the narrow road glistened like diamond. Wisps of vapor rose from the field as the warm fingers of sunlight caressed the earth. I saw all this, but it gave me no joy today. My head was hurting from lack of sleep and I was not looking forward to the early morning meeting with one of our most important clients. I knew the dossier almost by heart, enough to realize that I had nothing in my arsenal to end the current stalemate. I was so much absorbed in these uncomfortable thoughts that I almost did not notice Betsy standing calmly in the middle of the road. Betsy is the ancient Labrador belonging to Mam, who lived right on the edge of the village. I don’t think anyone knows Mam’s real name or age. She sits all day long on the porch of her tiny house with the lovely garden, and talks to whoever passes by. She was a healer, they said, with genuine gifts, curing everything from burns to wasp stings to warts. Not any more, though, mainly because everyone now went to the surgery just down the road. But I know that several ladies from the village visit Mam regularly to get old recipes or remedies to common ailments or for a cutting from her splendid roses. Her daughter, living in the next village, looks after Mam while Mam spends her time tending her garden. She must have magic green fingers, for her garden is a thing of beauty at any time of the year.

I think of all this as I stamp down on my brakes & stop the car in the middle of the road. I walk sternly towards Betsy. She looks at me with her honey eyes and wags her tail. ‘Bad Betsy’, I tell her ‘why have you come out of the garden?’ I start walking towards the house and she follows me. Mam is not yet on her porch, so I call out a good morning. She shuffles out and squints at me in the morning sun. Betsy goes over to her mistress and I start telling her about Betsy. She does not seem interested. She stares at me so hard that I think that she does not recognize me. I start telling her my name. But she waves me to silence. She comes near me and holds out her right hand. Puzzled, I take it.

It is like receiving an electric shock. Her hand is cold and sort of stings my skin. I shiver in that warm morning sun as if a trickle of ice cold water was running down my spine. I try to draw back my hand. She shakes her head, and grips my hand even tighter. Now I am seriously disturbed – maybe Mam has gone out of her mind. I am surprised by her strength – I can’t move away from her grip. I start wriggling, and suddenly she lets go of my hand. Her eyes are fixed on my face, and she mutters something. I start backing out, desperate to get into my car and leave. As I turn to go she pulls on my sleeves. ‘Get well soon, my child’, she tells me ‘I shall pray for you.’

I am badly shaken by the encounter. I almost run to my car and speed out of the village blindly. I am furious with myself for feeling this way. I slowly get my breathing under control and focus on the road. The empty streets and the bright morning light calm me down. I no longer feel groggy and heavy headed. My headache is almost gone. I switch on the car radio and listen to Cat Stevens singing ‘Morning has broken’. My black mood lifts and I start singing along at the top of my voice.

The meeting was already under way by the time I reached office. I slide into a chair with my files and mutter a hasty apology. I get a few annoyed looks from the participants and cringe inwardly; all my insouciance evaporates in the air conditioned room. I anxiously peer at my notes, hoping that I would be able to hold my own when my turn comes….
As I had expected, the meeting is a near disaster, a quagmire, really, all of us floundering and trying to sound competent. Our client, a young CEO of an old company, looks at us despondently, probably cursing his predecessors for choosing this bank. My boss is sinking deeper and deeper into his swivel chair, while the two account managers look everywhere except at their client. The tension in the room gets unbearable, and I suddenly snap. I jump up from my chair and beam at them all, squeaking ‘Coffee, anyone? I could go make some’. They all look at me in surprise, holding their breath till the young CEO smiles and say ‘that would be lovely’. Then they all scatter around, getting cups and saucers and cookies while I go into the kitchen to make coffee.
My boss pats me on my back while we walk out of the meeting room an hour later. Nothing was actually achieved, but goodwill was restored. I resent the familiar touch, but give him a tight smile before walking into my own office. Within seconds, the intercom buzzes. ‘Spend every minute you have on this case’ my boss barks down the line. ‘Leave no stone unturned. There must be a way out. What happened to your famous intuition?’ There is a trace of mockery in his tone and I resent that too. ‘Yes, Chief, will do that’ I say lightly, and spend the next five minutes with my head in my hands. The young secretary from the typing pool pokes her head inside my half open door. ‘You look like you need a cup of tea’ she says. ‘I was just going to down to make some – shall I bring you a cup?’ she asks. I am really surprised – nobody had invited me for anything for a long time now. I nod gratefully and then change my mind. ‘I’ll come down with you’, I say, ‘I really need a break’.
I spend the rest of the day poring over files, not making much progress. But I keep at it, slogging on, reading every word carefully. I switch on the table lamp automatically. Slowly the everyday office sounds start dying down as my colleagues leave work, while I still sit at my desk till the words in the file start swimming before my eyes. I decide to call it a day and start putting away the papers. A shadow falls across my door and I look up to find my boss standing there, car keys in hand, ready to leave. ‘Do you want to come for a drink?’ he asks me ‘you’ve been working very hard today, I noticed’. I almost gasp in surprise. I prevent the urge to rub my eyes to make sure that I am awake. Big Boss was reputed for his snootiness in the office – he never ever participated in office parties unless it was something inevitable like Christmas or the annual convention. He is totally unbiased in this – he spurns male and female colleagues equally. Although I am really curious, something holds me back. ‘I have this terrible headache’, I say, putting away the last bit of paper. ‘Oh OK, no problem’ he says nonchalantly. ‘We can do it another day’. I get my handbag to leave and we walk to the parking lot together. ‘Have a nice evening’ he says, brushing my hand. ‘See you tomorrow then’.
As I get into the car, I feel a burning sensation on my right hand that lasts only a few seconds but is strong enough to make me flinch. I look down and discern a faint red welt as if I had scraped my hand against something. It disappears as I peer at it, and I am no longer sure that I actually saw it. By this time, I was totally exhausted by the emotions of the day, and just wanted to get home to my dog and a hot bath. I suddenly thought about Rohan – even a few weeks back, I often returned home to find him pottering in the kitchen, an open bottle of wine on the table and the dog under. I thought of calling him, but decided against it. The roller coaster day had really drained all my strength…

But the day was not yet over, nor its store of surprises. I see a shadow on my porch as I drive in. Now this really jolts me - I hardly ever meet the good people of the village during the week – they are all indoors and probably at their dining tables by the time I get back. I quickly get out of the car, thinking that maybe it is the young woman down the road come to borrow a book or a DVD. She sometimes did, though it was mostly during the weekends. As I turn the corner, I know it isn’t her. Mam was standing on the porch with Betsy. I greet her, surprise evident in my tone as I open the front door – I have never seen Mam outside her house and it really feels strange to see her at my doorstep. My dog comes bounding out, sniffs at Betsy and then both of them disappear into the garden. I invite the old lady in and ask her if she wants a drink. She silently shakes her head, and sits down in the wicker chair.
I look at her enquiringly. ‘Is there anything wrong, Mam?’ I ask, looking at her wrinkled old face that was now set in stern lines.
‘I have to come and see you, child. I know roughly when you come back, so I just waited here’ she said. ‘I have been thinking about you since this morning and would not be able to rest till I do something about you.’
‘But there is nothing wrong with me, Mam’, I say, feeling a bit impatient and irritated.
‘Because you don’t know about it. I felt the shadow as soon as you walked into my house this morning. There is something evil stalking you, but I can’t do anything about it unless you tell me yourself’.
‘What evil? Why should anything evil stalk me, Mam?’ I ask, though deep down I know what she is talking about.
‘I can’t tell you why, but I know it when I see it. Some people are just good vessels for good or evil, I guess. But once again, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me’.
This makes me angry. ‘Maybe I don’t want your help, Mam. I have no problems with my life, and I don’t believe in all this good and evil stuff. In fact, I don’t even know what you are talking about’ I say rather rudely.
She looks at me sadly and sighs. ‘At least I tried my best’ she says. ‘Come to me if and when you are ready to talk. You need help, and soon’.
I avoid looking at her as she makes her way to the door. Betsy is already on the porch waiting for her. I watch them making their way slowly down the narrow road. I suddenly feel unbelievably sad and lonely. I whistle to my dog and nestle in her canine warmth…

Six months have now gone by since Mam visited my house. I am now thinking of buying a new house, maybe on the coast. I got another huge promotion once I managed to crack the case involving the young CEO of the old company. It involved a lot of digging and mudslinging at different people – some of them would probably never recover from the ugly scandal that unfolded as a result of my dirty work. I now share the same floor and the same bed with my boss. The latter is supposed to be a well-guarded secret but is not. I don’t particularly care. Almost every day I get discreet calls from headhunters working for our rivals and turn them down politely, but I know for certain that one day there will be an offer too lucrative to turn down. I have no qualms about that either. I am happy. I am thriving.
My only worry is the ugly welt on my right hand and the fact that it remains ice cold no matter what I do. But I can live with that…


No comments:

Blogger Widgets
Powered by Blogger.