Nina stopped dead on her tracks as she opened the apartment door. Her telephone was ringing. She couldn’t believe her ears – the instrument has been lying silent on its little three legged table since eternity. Its shrill tones made her almost go out of the door again.

Nina hates the telephone. There was a time, in her youth, when she spent hours on the telephone, first with her girlfriends, chattering about nothing. And then later, to boys and men, while her father complained roundly about escalating telephone bills and her brother joked about the overheated wires and relays. But all that was a long long time ago.

Nina now has a phobia for telephones. In her workplace, in the immaculately white laboratory where she spends her time looking at blood samples under the powerful microscopes, there is no telephone. Her cell phone remains switched off most of the time, stowed neatly in the tiny pocket of her handbag.  But she never got around to disconnecting the land line, just unlisted her number, mainly to avoid people trying to sell her cars, or insurance, or nec plus ultra smart phones. She even received a call once from a mortuary selling funeral plans, complete with the song she wanted to be played…..

Her immediate reflex was to run away, to unplug the phone, to silence the sound that still made her stomach churn. That still conjured up images of death, accidents and betrayal. But today, for some reason, she decided to pick it up. Mainly from curiosity – she couldn’t, at that moment, recall even one person who had this number.

So Nina picked up the receiver and in the unpracticed voice of someone who had never used a telephone before, said hello. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears – the faint echo on the line made it even worse. There was no sound at the other end. ‘Ah, a heavy breather’, she thought in some relief, ‘must have dialed a string of numbers that came into his head’, and she was about to put the receiver down, when the voice came:

-   “Just give me a minute, please, don’t ring off” - a nice voice, well modulated, no identifiable accents. Her curiosity won, as she stood there holding the white handset.

She heard faint noises in the background, a car horn, a timer going off, the roar of a motorbike, and then the voice came back

-   “I am so glad to find you, never thought you’d have kept the same number. It’s been a long time – at least five years, isn’t it, if not more?”

And then Nina knew that the call was for someone else – she has moved into this neighbourhood only two years back. She was about to say so, when the voice went on:

-   “I promise I meant to call you, but can you believe it, I lost the piece of paper on which I had written down your number. And even more unbelievable – I found it only today, stuck in a book that I must have been reading at that time. Can you forgive me? How have you been?”

Nina bit back the sentence she was about to say, and was suddenly tempted to impersonate this other person – whoever she might have been. She had absolutely no idea what the relationship had been, and while one part of her brain advised caution, the other part egged her on.

-   “Er yes, it has been a long time”, she managed to say. “This is quite a surprise, I must say”– this, at least was the truth. 
-   “Well, I’m just glad to find you again”, he said, “and this time I’ll not lose the number again. But we have to start from scratch, sort of, five years is a long time. So what do you say?”

Nina struggled to find an answer. What would be the right answer? How well had these people known each other? Was it a one night stand? Was it more than that? And why was she playing this game?
-   Don’t answer right now if you don’t want to. I can wait. But you see, I found this bit of paper today, and saw you before my eyes, in your lovely red dress….”

Nina hated bright colours, had always done. She was into muted shades, pastels, greys, but above all black & white. She digested this bit of information, and figured out, at the same time, that the relationship had not got very far. Yes, a one night stand, she decided. So maybe she could keep playing this game.

-   “I guess I’m too surprised to hear from you”, she said, gaining confidence in herself. “But I’m glad you called….”
-   “I’m not going to ask you embarrassing questions about your life”, he said, “We agreed on that. I just don’t want to lose contact again. Is that all right?”

That was when Nina took the big step and said yes, it was all right…..


And the curious relationship started. He often called, and they talked about different things, but never about their personal lives. She started getting glimpses of his persona – he liked reading, was a keen hiker, hated television, loved musicals. She talked easily about whatever the topic under discussion was, loved the sound of his voice, the easy laughter. It became obvious that he did not know the girl very well, and which made her bolder. She kept her own life secret, but talked freely about a poem she had read, a song she had heard, about political turmoil or natural calamities. She discovered the pattern of his phone calls – the days of the week, the time he called in the evenings, his occasional mood swings. She made it a point to be bright & chatty, and that seemed to work.

Nina discovered that suddenly, there was a bounce in her steps. She caught herself humming in the shower. She even took down the dusty instrument, her onetime companion. On her way to work, she now watched single men with curiosity – she had no idea where he lived, but a sudden smile or a pair of bright eyes or an athletic stride would make her wonder if this was the man at the end of the phone line. She called her girlfriends on her cell phone, who were overjoyed to see her happy. She went out with them a few times, and realised that all this was still fun, as it used to be before. She even tried on a red dress in a funky shop, and in spite of the pressure from the salesgirl and her friend, she did not finally buy it. She knew she was being fanciful and rather silly, but suddenly, it did not seem to matter.

She wondered why he never asked to meet, though that was a great relief, and thought that maybe he lived in a different place. She was slowly building up a person in her head, from the snatches of conversation – it was like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Nina had loved puzzles when she was a young girl, loved the way the picture emerged at the end, and then how all the individual pieces lost their own forms. She wondered whether he was doing the same, but never dared to ask. And she was happy as she had never been before, living in her real and imaginary world.


It was a bright spring morning when her telephone shrilled. She almost dropped the coffee mug she had in her hand. She stared at the phone for a few seconds, but the ringing was insistent. She picked it up with a strange foreboding.

-   “Good morning, Ma’am, this is Officer…… calling from Mr…. home” said a gruff voice. And with immense relief she answered back :
-   “Good morning. I’m afraid you have called a wrong number. I don’t know any Mr….”. She was about to put the phone down, when the voice came back.
-   “No, Ma’am, this is the right number. I’m calling you on a serious matter. I found your number on his phone – he calls you regularly, isn’t it?”
-   “I’m telling you I know no such man….”
-   “Hang on, lady”, the voice was rougher now “I’m not in the mood for a joke. The only calls this man has made is to your number, apart from those to his bank, his garage and so on. We checked on all that. Now what did you say your profession was, Ma’am?”
-   “I didn’t say, and you didn’t ask”, Nina retorted, “and how do I know you are who you claim to be? And why should you ask me such questions, in any case? Am I under investigation?”. She was amazed at her own bravado, and hoped it would last a little longer.
-   “Ma’am, how else would I find your number? Be reasonable. You have been talking to this person regularly and for long periods too, if his phone record is anything to go by.”
-   “That’s not a crime, is it? And I insist – there is some problem. I really don’t know this man”.
-   “I’m afraid there is no mistake, Ma’am. Now will you be a bit more cooperative, please?”

Suddenly Nina was gripped with panic. Of course, the officer was talking about him. And of course, she didn’t know his name – she never asked, just like he never asked her. She sat down on her bed now, trying to calm herself down.
 -   “Ma’am, you there? Listen, lady, you really need to come down here….”
-   “What is the problem, Officer?”
-   -“His house has been broken into. The neighbours informed us. But there is no trace of the man. Now we’re wondering if this is the work of a gang. The neighbours say that they haven’t seen him in quite some time. Now if you know about his whereabouts, you need to tell us. And right now, if you please.”
-   “Well, I did talk to him few days back, but Officer, I honestly don’t know where he is. I don’t even know where he lives. We just talk on the phone….”

A moment’s silence, and then the voice came back, with a contemptuous note this time.
-   “I see. So you are one of those…..”
-   “No, I’m not, and you better believe me. Look, I’ll give you my address, and tell you where I work. Check me up if you care to”. She dictated her address to the man, gave the name of the laboratory where she worked.
-   “Well, why don’t you come down to the station, since you live so nearby? I will meet you there, and leave my colleague here.” He gave her the street number, and said he’ll be there to meet her.

Nina was dumfounded. So he lived in this city! And judging by the address of the police station, almost in the same area. Maybe they have crossed each other a hundred times, on the bus, in the metro, in the shopping mall. Maybe he was in the restaurant she went to last Saturday with her friends. But what had happened to him?

She sent up a silent prayer to some unidentified power while she got dressed, and almost ran to the police station. True to his words, Officer….. was waiting for her, a very sour and dissatisfied look on his face. Nina cringed under his level blue stare. Did he really believe that Nina was one of those girls?????

Half an hour later, he seemed to be satisfied with what she had to say.
-   “Of all strange things” – he muttered under his breath. “Wouldn’t like my girl to be in this kind of a situation”, he stated.
-   “But what are you going to do, Officer? I mean, you have to find the man….” she ventured.
-   “Yes of course. That is going to be my headache for now. Hope the poor bugger is still alive. And no one seems to know what he did for a living. Was sort of private, don’t you see? Hardly had any contact with the neighbours…..”

Wild images danced before her eyes as she sat petrified in that horrible brown room. Closed trunks, rotting flesh, garbage dumps, stagnant ponds – images from all those thrillers she had read voraciously. She was about to say something, when there was a huge commotion just outside the door.

A wild looking man rushed in, hands handcuffed behind his back, with a youngish policeman in badly creased clothes following close behind. Nina cringed. She had heard lots of stories about what goes in police stations, and sprang to her feet. 

The dramatic entry was followed by a string of oaths as the man planted himself in front of desk where Nina was standing.

-   “Now, may I know why I have been handcuffed and brought to this station, Officer?” he screamed.

The officer looked at the young policeman.
-   “Well, Sir, he was creeping into Mr…;’s house, came in through the shrub, sir, not the main gate, like. Has to be the burglar, I thought, so snapped the cuffs on. Asked who he was, Sir, but he didn’t answer me. Never showed any ID, either…..”
-   “I shall come into my house any way I choose. Through the window if fancy takes me. And how could I show you any ID, moron, my hands were tied.”
-   “Excuse me, are you Mr……? Where have you been, Sir? Your house has been broken in.”
-   “Of course I’m Mr….. And don’t you think you should try catching the burglars and not the owner of the house? As to where I have been, that is none of your concern, is it? Now, can I please request you to undo my handcuffs?” he roared.
-   “Yes, but I’ll need some proof of identity, Sir. Do you have any papers on you?”
-   “No, I don’t, they are in my car. So you’ll have to come back with me. And be very sure, Officer, I’m not going to let this go.”
-   “I’m very sorry Sir. And I’m sorry, Miss, to have bothered you. Very kind of you to drop by” said the Officer, contrite, but did Nina catch a twinkle in his eyes?

Now he noticed her for the first time, totally baffled.
-   “Who is she, Officer? I don’t know her. Is she here for me? Dear God, can’t you guys do anything right?”
-   “Yes Sir, she told me she didn’t know you either. Except that I didn’t quite believe her. After all, you have been talking to her for all these months. Got her number from your phone records, Sir.”

He turned and looked at her, amazement giving place to wonder and then comprehension. She wanted the earth to open up, an earthquake, a tsunami, anything that would wipe off this rummy police station. She picked up her bag, avoiding his eyes, ready to go out.

-   “You’re not ……” he stated.
-   “No. I’m sorry. It was just….”

That is when she heard the laughter.
-   “God be my witness, I never ever dreamt of this. Who are you, then? Come, you can tell me all that once I’ve proved I am who I am.”

She looked up and smiled right back at him. A dazzling smile. She had come home.



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