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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 1/15/2017 |




Ena stepped back and surveyed the Christmas tree, satisfied with her final touches. The fairy now sat prim and proper on the top of the tree, and not at an impossible and drunken angle. The stars and bells and multicolored baubles covered the branches equally. The kids had tried hard this year to do the decorations themselves, but of course, they did not have the patience to make things perfect. Christmas presents wrapped in bright colorful paper were now neatly arranged under the tree. She pressed the master switch for the Christmas lights, and the garlands entwined around the tree and on the windows twinkled to life. Everything would be perfect this evening when everyone came back and settled down to enjoy the long Christmas weekend, she thought. The long dining table looked wonderfully festive too; bright red place mats perfectly complemented the pine green napkins and the small golden tea light candles floating in small glass bowls. She had not yet laid the table – the plates would need to be warmed up before serving. Ena’s thoughts drifted for a second to her mother-in-law - an accomplished cook, a fine hostess, a talented singer and painter who had taught the young bride an awful lot of things about gracious living. Coming from an ordinary middle class family that gave more importance to girls’ education rather than finishing school skills, Ena knew little or nothing about such everyday elegance. She was an eager learner, though she saw little point in embroidering cushion covers or sewing elegant patchwork throws in those days. They were coming in handy now, helping her get through the long interminable days. Ena walked into the study and looked at the framed photograph of her late mother in law. She looked happy in this picture. ‘May your soul rest in peace’ she told the picture. ‘I wish you could see the house today. I think you would have been proud.’

She glanced at the clock. It was only mid-morning, but the chores were already done – the dishwasher emptied, the dried clothes folded and put away, the rooms vacuumed, and the kitchen counters wiped clean. She switched on the coffee machine and settled down in her favorite chair beside the French windows opening out to the garden. She drew aside the drapes though it was a sad winter day with a gray laden sky. Two small birds were pecking at the birdfeed hanging from the bare branches of the apple tree. They would soon discover the water dish at the bottom of the tree and fly there. There was frost on the grass still, and would probably not disappear at all, given the temperature. Ena wrapped her hands round the big coffee mug, enjoying the warmth. ‘If only the sun came out, even for a little while, it would be so wonderful’ she thought, thinking about Christmases in the city she had grown up in. And, as always, was transported instantly to that crowed, polluted, jostling city that she still called home. The people there celebrated all religious and social festivals with equal gusto, but Christmas was somewhat special, maybe because of the city’s colonial heritage.

Ena’s family had lived in a very cosmopolitan area where Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists lived in peaceful cohabitation. On Christmas Day the Christians decorated the streets with colorful flags, streamers and large stars. The small alleys they lived in were swept clean, house fronts scrubbed, men, women and children dressed in their best clothes thronging the streets. Through un-curtained windows the passers-by could see pictures of Jesus Christ in golden frames. The neighborhood bakery smelled like heaven, fruitcakes of different weights piled high on the narrow counter. Christmas carols played on the loudspeakers while people got ready for +the church. By midmorning the streets of the city were filled with ‘tempos’ – those small, all-purpose pickup vans piled high with pots and pans and grocery as groups headed out of the city limits for their annual picnics. Ena could almost smell the meat and the rice cooking in enormous pots out in the open – on the banks of the river that flowed through the city, or in sprawling old bungalows with big, often untended gardens. Winter was gay and sunny at home, a season of fairs, festivals and outdoor activities; of school holidays, cricket matches in the grand stadium, daytrips to the local zoo, boat rides on a placid river. ‘Winter here is so different’ Ena thought sadly. Cold, dull, rainy and windy, each day was like the previous or the following one. Interminably long and dark days that pushed her to the brink of depression. Ena shook her head as she got up abruptly and looked around, trying to find something to do. ‘You mustn’t indulge in negative thoughts’ the kindly doctor had told her. ‘And the only way out is to be active and constructive.’

Ena finished the lukewarm coffee and went into the kitchen to wash the cup. She walked into the bedroom and straightened the bedcover that was already perfectly draped on the bed. She wandered into the walk-in closet that was in perfect order too – all her clothes on one side, either folded or in hangers, shoes prim on the shelves, scarves knotted around the ladder she had bought dirt cheap from a car boot sale. Ena grimaced. The closet reminded her of the depressingly jolly and cheerful therapist who had arrived on a chilly winter morning like this one and goaded her to bring back some kind of order into her life, starting with this closet. She hastily walked out of the bedroom, feeling the familiar panic rising within her. What if the darkness came back suddenly today, on the eve of Christmas holidays, and drove her back into those horrible, empty, echoing caves? She couldn’t bear to see the hopelessness in her husband’s eyes again, or the fear in the eyes of her children. She picked up her phone, wanting to call someone, wanting to hear the sound of a human voice. She did not dare call her husband, the ever busy financial director – he wouldn’t probably even answer his private phone at this time of the day. Ena always called his secretary if and when it was absolutely necessary and left messages. She thought about calling her mother and discarded the idea immediately; her mother could hardly hear anything on the phone these days, and right now she didn’t have the energy to repeat each word ten times. The only person who would take her calls at any time, day or night, and bring her back to the real world was now gone from her life; she no longer had her friend, her soul mate, her unconditional champion – the ever-present life jacket that had brought her back to the shore of life over and over again.

She stood before the drawer that she had not opened in a long time, wanting to look at the albums again, wanting to read the letters and the cards she had received over long years. She looked out of the window and saw the little robin that came to feed almost every day. He was perched on the branch that almost touched the window, and seemed to be looking at her directly. Ena moved closer to the window and the bird edged closer as well, as if to touch her face with its beak. She opened the window softly, expecting the bird to fly away, and stuck out her hand. The bird did not move, but looked at her quizzically, as if asking a question. Ena could see its bright red breast that always reminded her of ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ and of the tears she had shed every time she read the story. She moved her hand slowly, wanting to touch the bird, but this time it decided to fly away. Ena closed the window – it was bitterly cold outside, and the sky was getting darker by the minute. She wondered whether there was snow coming their way, picking up her cell phone to check the weather forecast, and almost jumped when it started ringing immediately. She glanced down to check the caller ID and sighed in relief as Sabrina’s picture flashed up.
‘Hi Sabrina, how are you? Such a surprise…’ she started saying.
‘Hi Ena’ replied the other girl. ‘Listen, honey, I’m so sorry to bother you today. I’m calling you from the shelter. We got an emergency here.’
‘Emergency, Sabrina? What on earth is wrong? Are you alone?’
‘Sorry sorry, I shouldn’t have scared you. Wrong word, Ena. Not an emergency as such. But a problem, all the same. We were supposed to get all those boxes with presents yesterday, remember?’
‘Yes’ replied Ena. ‘You were supposed to wrap them up.’
‘Right, only we didn’t get them till late yesterday, and there are still loads of gifts to be wrapped up. And Marine just called me. She’s down with flu, and won’t be able to make it. The others are busy in the kitchen – we’re expecting at least fifty to sixty people in the evening. Daniel needs a hand to put up the decorations as well.’
‘Oh dear’ said Ena. ‘I wish I was there to lend you a hand…’
‘Ena, you have to come over. We won’t be able to finish things on time otherwise. Gabriel will come in later, but we desperately need you now.’

Ena did voluntary work from time to time for this shelter, much against the wishes of her elitist husband. She did not have the courage to actually deal with the people who came to the shelter, either voluntarily or sent over by the social workers doing rounds on cold frosty days like this one. She helped out in the library or in the kitchen, assisted the regular care givers with their inventory or accounts or helped them with shopping. The shelter was run by a small team of dedicated volunteers who worked closely with the government run social services and also privately run charities. Every year the center organized a Christmas party for the homeless. The normally bleak entrance hall was transformed each year with a large and gaily decorated Christmas tree, a long table covered with seasonal delicacies, small gifts wrapped in colorful wrapping paper piled under the tree. There was always a lot of bustle and buzz during the week before Christmas, and Ena loved helping the cheerful men and women who seemed totally unfazed by the human misery they witnessed every day, concentrating on providing a shelter and comfort to those who needed it most. And suddenly that is where Ena wanted to be – in that slightly rundown building with the big wooden door that was never locked, even at night.
‘OK Sabrina, I’ll start now. But I have to pick up the kids at five, so can’t stay for too long.’
‘Love you, darling. No need to stay late. Just help us out for the next couple of hours. Doreen has made a stew and I got some fresh bread from the village. We’ll have a quick lunch here, OK? See you soon then’ said Sabrina as she rang off.

Ena was in her car in ten minutes flat. She switched on the headlights – the day was getting darker by the minute. She debated for a split second whether she should leave a message for her husband & then decided against it. She wasn’t going far, and would be back long before he came home. There was not much traffic on the road since a large number of people were already on holiday. She was almost at the junction of the motorway when she spotted the figure hunched under the flimsy structure that was once a telephone booth, waving a placard with ‘Paris’ wrote on it. The two cars in front of her drove past the forlorn figure without even slowing down. As Ena moved closer she saw that the waving stick figure was a woman. She had a long coat that was flapping in the wind and a colorful bonnet with a pompom on top. A big backpack sat at her feet, and a good sized satchel was slung across her chest. As Ena slowed down a bit, the girl looked up enthusiastically and waved at her. And Ena, the nervous, timid, cowardly woman who often despised herself for not being bold, pulled in on the concrete strip in front of the phone booth and rolled her window down.

The girl strode to her window and gave Ena a big smile. ‘Oh, thank you sooooo much for stopping. I had started stressing out, you know. No one even slowed down. Don’t people hitchhike in this country?’
‘I don’t know, really, but there are not many on this road. That is certain. I live nearby and I’ve never seen one so far’ Ena said.
‘Anyways, thank you. Are you going to Paris? Shall I climb in?’ asked the girl.
‘I’m not going to Paris, but to a place which is just off the motorway to Paris. It is a much busier place, and you’ll probably find it easier to get a lift from there. This is only a feeder road, you see, and people use it to travel locally.’
‘Why not? Since it is in the right direction? In any case, I don’t want to get stuck here. It’ll start snowing soon’ said the girl.
Ena got out of the car and helped the girl with her backpack and opened the passenger door for her. She got into the car and put her hands on the heater while Ena strapped herself in.
‘Do you want a rug? You must be really cold. I have one in the boot, I think’ Ena said.
‘I shall be all right in a minute’ said the girl and stuck out her hand. ‘I am Kylie. Thank you for offering me the lift. Your car is nice and warm’ she said, pulling off the bonnet. A pile of auburn curls tumbled over her shoulders as she ran her fingers through them.
‘I am Ena. Nice to meet you too, Kylie. Where do you come from?’
‘I am Canadian, but I have been in England for the last couple of weeks. I just crossed over from England and got a lift up to where you picked me up. The family lives in a little village somewhere nearby and so dropped me on the main road. I shall spend a few days in Paris and then I’ll decide where to go next. I have three months of vacation time and intend to see as much of Europe as possible.’
‘Are you travelling on your own, Kylie? You must be very brave, for someone so young.’
‘I’m not that young any more’ smiled the girl. ‘I came with a friend. She is in Ireland right now. We may catch up somewhere later. I don’t mind travelling alone. In fact, I sometimes prefer it. Then I don’t have to make any concessions, you see’ she said cheerfully.
‘So Ena, where are you going? Are you on an errand?’
Ena looked at the young girl & smiled. ‘You may call it an errand, I suppose. But it is more than that, actually. I’m going to help some people to organize a Christmas Eve party.’
‘Ah, that’s nice. So is it going to be a big party tonight then?’
Ena started telling her about the shelter and then about the people who worked there. Kylie listened attentively, nodding her head from time to time. She was a good listener and a good conversation maker too, and soon they were chatting away freely as if they had known each other for long. Ena was enjoying herself so much that she hardly noticed the first timid snowflakes blowing on the windshield.
‘Told you it was going to snow’ said Kylie. ‘I can always feel the snow coming. Don’t you?’
‘Not really. But I am a bit concerned now, Kylie. I can’t just drop you on the motorway. It is going to be so cold.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind the cold’ said the young girl. ‘But you know what, Ena, I was just wondering if I could go to the center with you. You can drop me on the way back, unless you plan to stay there late?’
‘No, I won’t stay very long, and maybe the weather would clear up by then. Of course I’ll take you. We’ll really appreciate your help as well.’
‘That’s settled then. I’m sure it’ll be fun.’
*************************************************************************************

There was indeed a lot to do in the shelter. Kylie helped everyone whenever it was required – climbing up the ladder to hang the star on top of the tree, wrapping presents, laying the long trestle tables with cakes, chocolates and Christmas hats. Ena’s friends welcomed her warmly, and she reciprocated their welcome. The big wooden door was temporarily closed to keep the cold out and they drew the drapes across the tall windows to put up streamers and garlands. After about a couple of hours, Ena glanced at her watch and decided it was time to leave – she didn’t want to be late picking up her children. She embraced her friends and wished them a Merry Christmas. Kylie got a lot of hugs too.
‘You are a lovely girl, Kylie’ they said. ‘Have a wonderful Christmas in Paris. And come visit us if you ever come this way again.’
‘Sure. You never know, I might just drop in’ said Kylie as she shook their hands.
Ena stepped out of the door and literally froze. The world outside was now white. It was snowing heavily now, beautiful and silent. Her car was under a blanket of snow. The narrow country lane was practically invisible. She felt panic clutch at her throat.
‘No, no, please God, not today’ she muttered under her breath and looked around wildly. ‘What am I going to do?’
‘What is it, Ena? Are you scared of the snow?’
‘Kylie, I am not a very confident driver, and I hate driving in snow. And I have to pick up the kids in an hour now. They’ll wait for me. And there’s so much to do at home too. I could try calling a cab. Let me see’ she said, frantically pulling out our cell phone.
Kylie stopped her. ‘I’ll drive, Ena. The snow is still soft and wet. There is very little danger. We just need to start the car. Do you have a shovel in your car?’
‘No, no, I don’t. But I’m sure they have one inside. Are you sure, Kylie? Are you allowed to drive here? Have you ever driven in these conditions? I don’t even have snow tires…’
‘Hey, I’m Canadian, remember? Québec is snowbound for almost four moths every year. And it snows every day, Ena. This is a doddle, honestly. And yes, I have an international driving license. I’ll take you home.’
‘But Kylie, you’re on your way to Paris. I live in the opposite direction. I can’t accept your offer. Wait, I’ll call my husband. He’ll find a solution.’
‘Ena, look at it this way. If you don’t go, I’m stuck here as well. I can always take a train to Paris later, can’t I?’
Now Ena brightened up. Of course, Kylie could always take a train, and the station was not far from the house either.
‘Ena turned and hugged the young girl. ‘Right, let’s do it, then’ she said.
As Kylie had said, the snow was still soft and fluffy, and it didn’t take them too long to dig the wheels out and shovel off the snow. All the good Samaritans of the shelter came out to help. They covered their heads with plastic bags and giggled like children. Kylie took the wheel and started the car easily enough and then crept forward carefully, staying in the middle of the narrow road. The swirling snowflakes made pretty patterns in the beam from the headlights. It was really quiet, all sounds muffled by the snow. They met no other cars coming from the opposite direction. Ena sat in tense silence, clutching the arm rest though she could see that Kylie was an expert driver. She eased the car on the motorway and the drove slowly. The snow came down hard and fast now, the wipers struggling to keep the windshield clear.
‘Relax, Ena’ Kylie said, glancing at her clutched hand. ‘We’re doing fine. But I don’t know where I am supposed to go. Don’t forget to tell me well ahead of time. The exit ramps are always the trickiest.’
‘Oh dear, so stupid of me. Of course you don’t know. You’ll have to take Exit 19. We still have about ten kilometers to do.’
*************************************************************************************

The children were all outside, playing in the soft powdery snow. They got into the car reluctantly and stopped short when they saw the stranger. Kylie beamed at them.
‘Hi guys’ she said brightly; ‘I am your chauffeur today. Aren’t you lucky? I am a driving champion, you know. I have won a lot of trophies, especially for driving in snow.’
A bit uncertain, they both greeted Kylie politely, and looked enquiringly at their mother.
‘Kylie was on her way to Paris – she hitched a ride with me.’ Ena told her kids.
‘But Paris is in the opposite direction’, said Rik.
‘Yes, yes, I know. It’s a long story. Let us get home first’ replied his mother as Kylie started the car.
Rik watched carefully as Kylie negotiated the snow banks that were piling up on the side of the road.
‘Will you teach me to drive in the snow? It seems fun,’ he asked earnestly. ‘We can practice later.’
Kylie glanced at him in the mirror. ‘Maybe in a few years, pal. How old are you?’
‘Oh I’ll be 15 soon’ said Rik. ‘And Papa lets me take his car out the garage sometimes. I want to be a Formula One driver.’
‘Oh, I am a big fan of Formula One too. I have several scrap books at home. My favorite driver is Hamilton.’
‘Oh wow, mine too. Isn’t he the greatest?’
Ena looked at her daughter; she was resolutely staring outside her window, as if totally disinterested in the conversation. She was quieter than her brother and more of an introvert. But Ena knew that she was dying to join the conversation.
‘Trina’s passion is swimming’ Ena said lightly. ‘Do you swim, Kylie?’
‘Oh, I love swimming too. I played in the college water polo team. I did a lot of synchronized swimming also.’
Trina’s face brightened. Her dream was to be selected for the school team that participated in a lot of competitions all over the country. Ena had been a keen tennis player once and she was a very competent swimmer too. She shared her daughter’s enthusiasm and accompanied her uncomplainingly for the numerous practice sessions.
‘Trina is mad about synchronized swimming’ said Ena. ‘I’m sure you two can share a lot of tips. Kylie, please take the next road to the left. We are home.’ She handed the door keys to Trina and turned to Kylie. ‘Do come inside, Kylie. Let us have a hot drink first. I am freezing. You must be too.’
‘I’m OK, Ena, and I’d definitely love a hot drink. But maybe we should check the train timings first? I don’t like the look of the sky. There’s more snow coming, I think.’
‘Yes of course, I’ll check the timetable. Where are you staying in Paris? I hope it isn’t too far because you won’t reach Paris very early.’
‘I haven’t reserved anything, actually. I wasn’t sure of the date. But I have stayed in a hotel near the Gare du Nord once– I was going to reserve a room there. I have the phone number.’
‘Kylie, listen to me. Why not spend the evening with us and go to Paris tomorrow? If it snows too heavily the trains will stop running in any case. We’re not as well equipped and as used to heavy snows as in your home country. Since no one is actually expecting you, it won’t be a problem, would it, now?’
‘I can’t impose on you and your family just like that, Ena. It’s Christmas Eve, after all. And are you sure that there will be a train service on Christmas Day?’
‘Oh yes, there will be trains, certainly. Only less frequent. And don’t worry about imposing – I’m inviting you.’

Ena said all this very confidently, but already she was starting to feel a bit apprehensive. Her husband was more or less gregarious but was very choosy about house guests. ‘I can’t be bothered to face people I don’t know well or like for breakfast’ he had declared forcefully when Ena had invited a school friend to spend a weekend with them. Her husband had treated her friend with elaborate courtesy and frosty politeness that had rankled Ena no end. Her friend, a highly strung, extremely sensitive person, had felt the marked lack of warmth too and left well before the weekend was over. She had never come back to visit Ena again.
But this was different, thought Ena defensively. The leaden sky almost touched the ground. Everything was incredibly quiet – as if nature was holding her breath for something momentous to happen. As Ena stepped out of the car, she could feel the wind getting up.
‘Come on in, Kylie. You can think about my invitation with a warm cup in your hand.’
They got out of the car and walked inside. Kylie stopped right inside the door, taking in the beautifully decorated room. Her eyes shone with pleasure.
‘What a beautiful tree, Ena. I simply love the decorations. And look at that table. You are an artist. This is what Christmas should look like.’
Ena smiled broadly. ‘Put down your pack, Kylie. Let’s go into the kitchen. I don’t think the children will want anything to eat, but I’ll ask.’ She said, leading Kylie into her warm well-appointed kitchen and calling out to her children.
‘What would you like to drink, Kylie? Tea, coffee or cocoa? Or would you prefer a beer or a glass of wine?’
‘Oh, I’d love a cup of strong coffee with loads of cream and sugar, please’ said Kylie, sliding into a chair in front of the small kitchen table. Rik and Trina raced into the kitchen and sat down on either side of Kylie. Ena couldn’t believe her eyes. Her children went to their rooms as soon as they got back from school, passing through the kitchen only to grab something to eat. Soon all three were in animated conversation while Ena brewed coffee and made a jug of cocoa for the children. She placed the chocolate chip cookies and mince pies she had baked for Christmas on a big plate and brought everything to the table.
‘Oh my god, mince pies! You’re not British, are you, Ena? Didn’t know they made mince pies here for Christmas!’ said Kylie.

Ena thought about the magical Christmases she had spent in England with Peter’s family. She had learnt everything about Christmas in those happy, carefree years when the biggest challenge for Christmas was to find cheap and appropriate presents for people. She had made her first mince pie, first garlic bread, and the first salsa dip under the guidance of Peter’s genial mother. She had helped his father with the mulled wine, chopping the fruits and then giggling over the frequent tastings till Alan was satisfied with the results.
‘I spent quite a few Christmases with my British friends when I first came to this country. And my husband lived for a few years in England too for his studies. So yes, we are very fond of British style Christmas. None of us likes Turkey, though, so we never have that for Christmas.’
Ena glanced out of the window while sipping the strong coffee. It was still snowing and her garden looked like a Christmas card. The wind was now whipping the fat snowflakes on the trees and slowly and steadily building up snow drifts by the roadside. Ena dialed her husband’s number, hoping he had already started for home. Nikhil answered on the first ring.
‘Don’t worry, Ena, I am on my way home. Can’t talk now – it’s pretty tricky driving’ he said and rang off. Although relieved, Ena was a bit annoyed. Not a single query about her or the kids! They too had to plough through the snow drifts to get home. Of course, Kylie had driven and not her, but he didn’t know that. Not yet, in any case. She then called the helpline of the SNCF to ask about trains to Paris. After listening to the canned music for about 10 minutes and pressing different keys, she managed to get the information she was looking for. All trains to and from her local station for all destinations were cancelled till the weather improved.
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to spend the night with us, Kylie’ she said. ‘All trains are cancelled because of the snow. I was expecting this. Thank God we didn’t go to the station.’
‘You’ll have to put up with me then. I don’t have a choice, do I?’
‘Not really. Come, I’ll show you to the guestroom. Relax for some time – you’ve been travelling all day long. Have a shower if you want. Then come and join us.’
‘Can I help you in any way, Ena? I’m not a very good cook, but I can be useful around the kitchen.’
‘Thanks Kylie. You and Trina can lay the table later if you like.’ She turned to her children. ‘Put on your wellies and get some more firewood from the shed, please. And then you can both have a shower and change’.
‘Can I wear the black lace dress, Mum?’ Trina asked, her eyes shining. ‘And please, please, let me put on some makeup tonight.’
‘You are only thirteen, Trina. Don’t you think there’s enough time for all that? You know your Dad doesn’t like makeup either.’
‘It is Christmas Eve, and we have a lovely guest. Let us all dress up. Kylie, you’ll help me with make-up, won’t you?’
Kylie looked at Ena. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have anything suitable, Ena. I’ve just got jeans & stuff. Nothing festive’.
‘You can put on whatever you want, Kylie. But just in case you want to put on a dress or a skirt, I can lend you something that fits you.’
‘Come on, Kylie, let’s dress up’ said her daughter. ‘Papa will be all surprised. It’ll be fun.’
*************************************************************************************

Ena was putting the finishing touches to her meal when her husband arrived, swinging into the driveway at a slightly drunken angle and skidding to stop just inches from her parked car. Nikhil climbed out of the car gingerly and tested the ground which had already started to freeze a bit. Seconds later he was inside the hall, stamping on the doormat to get the snow off his shoes. Ena came out of the kitchen and helped him out of his coat.
‘Am I glad to be home’ he cried, making straight for the fireplace and spreading his hands to the flame. ‘It was terrible driving back. They are forecasting more snow today and tomorrow, Ena. Hope we have enough provisions to last for a couple of days, if the roads become totally impossible?’
‘We should be all right. I have a lot of stuff in the freezer too. Do you want a drink?’
Nikhil turned from the fire and looked at his wife. ‘Hey!!!! You look really great tonight. Have I seen this dress before?’
‘I have put it on several times, but I don’t know if you have actually seen it’ Ena said archly.
‘Oh well, now I have. And yes, I would love a drink. Tell you what – I’ll go and get it. I want a whiskey, so I’d better make it myself. Do you want a glass of wine?’
‘Yes please. Let us sit in front of the fire for a bit. It is really cheerful, isn’t it? What do you think of the decorations? I hope you’ll like the meal too. And I have something to tell you…’
*************************************************************************************

Nikhil stared at her, aghast. ‘Have you totally gone out of your mind, Ena? You pick up a girl – bad enough, if you ask me, given how things are. But she’s actually staying here? A total stranger, someone you’ve never seen before!’
‘Nik, what could I have done? Look at the weather! I couldn’t just leave her on the road. She was supposed to take a train but no trains are running – I checked!’
‘Ena, you shouldn’t have picked her up in the first place. Look at what the terrorists are doing all over Europe. How do you know she is not one?’
‘Listen, I am not totally stupid. I wouldn’t have picked up a guy…’ Ena started saying.
‘Ah, I love your variety of sexism. So only guys are potential terrorists? Don’t you remember the Red Brigade, the IRA, and more recently the Daech?’
‘Nikhil, let us not argue please. You haven’t even met her yet. Don’t be biased without reason. And there is nothing we can do about it now. It is Christmas Eve…’
‘I was looking forward to it, Ena. Now you have spoilt things a bit for me. I am worried.’
Ena began to feel the familiar sensation of anger and desperation rising like bile in her throat. She had developed a deep dislike for Nikhil’s cautious, calculating, judgmental approach to life, which became increasingly worse as he grew older and climbed the professional and social ladder. He considered everything as an investment and was forever calculating potential gain, even when it concerned friends and acquaintances. There was no point in trying to convince Nikhil – he was always totally inflexible in his decisions and judgments. Nikhil started saying something but stopped when Trina rushed into the room. His face softened immediately.
‘Hey Sweetie, look at you! What happened to my little girl? You look ten years older in this dress!’
‘Hello Papa. Why, don’t I look nice? Do you like my hair? Kylie did it all. She even helped me with my makeup. Wait till you see her, Mum. She’s all dolled up too. Your dress fits her perfectly. But Mum, do you have enough food? Kylie says she’s ravenous.’
Nikhil frowned at her daughter. ‘Trina, doesn’t it bother you that we have a perfect stranger in our house on Christmas Eve? You sound like you’ve found a long lost friend. Or am I the only abnormal person in this house?’
Trina looked anxiously at her mother, seeking reassurance. They were all used to Nikhil’s prolonged sulks and fluctuating temper. Finding none, she discreetly disappeared in the kitchen, muttering something about getting a drink.
‘Where is your brother, Trina? Or is he not coming down to join us?’ Nikhil asked.
‘No no, he’s coming down. But Papa, aren’t you going to change? We have all dressed up. Even Mum.’
‘Yes Nik, that would be nice’ Ena said. ‘Do you want me to draw you a bath? I’m sure you’ll feel much more relaxed.’
‘No need Ena. I can do that myself’ he replied stiffly and disappeared into the bedroom.
Trina looked at her mother anxiously. ‘Why is he in a bad mood, Mum? Is it because of Kylie?’
Once again Ena was surprised by her daughter’s perception. Her son would not have sensed anything at all – he hardly did even when things went seriously wrong. Ena was certain that it was a kind of defense system that he had perfected over years. Rik preferred to bury his head in the sand while her daughter stepped into the storms boldly.
‘Don’t worry, poppet. I had no other option. Nik will have to calm down, that’s all. He has to.’ She turned to watch Kylie coming down the stairs. She looked stunning, very different from the bedraggled girl she had picked up in the morning. And a lot older too.
‘Goodness, Kylie, you look like a model’ said Ena as Kylie slowly pirouetted and the flame red dress billowed around her. Ena had bought the dress on a whim and probably worn it only a couple of times. She thought that the color was too bright and the dress a bit short for her advancing years. It looked perfect on the young girl, complementing her auburn hair and her hazel green eyes. Ena noticed the glowing skin and the full lips for the first time. And her legs too, long and supple, perfect ankles covered in sheer stockings.
‘You need a pair of shoes, Kylie’ Trina said. ‘You can’t stay in those stockings the whole evening. ‘
‘I only have two pairs of walking boots’ said Kylie. ‘Won’t go with the dress, I’m afraid. But it is really warm here, so there is no problem.’
‘Wait, I have an idea’ said Ena and disappeared into the study. She came back with a pair of red baboosh and handed them to Kylie. ‘Put them on, Kylie. They are very comfortable. I know high heels would have looked better, but I don’t have any…’
Kylie was putting on the Moroccan slippers when Nikhil marched into the room, his hair still a bit damp, smelling of Davidoff that he must have slapped generously after his shower. Kylie straightened and stuck out her hand.
‘Good evening. I am Kylie. I am very sorry to intrude upon your family on Christmas Eve. But thank you very much for having me’ she said very gracefully.
Nikhil shook her hand and had the grace to welcome her, though the tone and the words sounded horribly contrived to Ena.
‘Right’ she said briskly ‘Let us all have a drink and a few nibbles. Trina, please call your brother. Nik, will you open the bottle of champagne while I get the glasses? Please sit down, Kylie.’
Kylie followed her into the kitchen and started putting the champagne glasses on a tray while Ena arranged the different types of nibbles and finger food she had prepared on another tray covered with a frilly doily. She arranged small forks, spoons and cocktail sticks on the side of the tray and carried everything into the sitting room. Rik was standing in front of the fire, dressed all in black, looking trim and fit and incredibly handsome. He smiled shyly, a bit conscious to be in relatively formal clothes. Nikhil poured out the drinks and they sat down around the table in front of the fireplace. Trina peeped outside the window and reported that it was still snowing and it looked absolutely wonderful outside. ‘Maybe we can go out for a bit once we have finished eating. We can make a snowman. What do you say, Rik?’ she asked.
‘Yes, good idea, sis. We can all go.’
‘Not me’, Ena said. ‘I have had enough of snow for one day. I’m staying indoors snug as a bug.’
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Nikhil had not said a word so far, and gradually his silence became evident to each person. Ena tried to keep the small talk flowing, getting increasingly annoyed with her husband. She caught Kylie looking at her, a strange look in her eyes – a mixture of pity, outrage and concern. Ena felt even more miserable, wanting to fling the tray into her husband’s face. The children were uncomfortable too, looking at each other, unsure about how they should behave.
‘Ena, we didn’t have much time to talk about myself, did we? Shall I fill you in? Maybe that would make Nikhil relax a bit too’ said Kylie, looking straight at her husband. ‘No, don’t protest, I can see what you are thinking. My Dad would have behaved in the same way, I’m sure, if he was still alive.’
Trina stared at Kylie openmouthed. ‘Your Daddy is dead, Kylie? Was he sick? You must miss him so much!’
‘No Trina, both my parents died in a car accident, years back, when I was only ten years old and my sister was seven. It was on a snowy day like this one, and they were coming back from an ice hockey game. We were at home. It had snowed heavily during the game, and although they cleared the windshield and the headlights, they either forgot or ignored to clean the rear ones. They got hit by a car from behind.’ She said all this in a kind of monotone, like she had repeated the same story over and over again. Trina got up to sit next to the young girl and put her arms around her new friend.
‘We were brought up by my aunt – my father’s elder sister. She already had four children and figured two more won’t make much of a difference. They had a biggish farm in a place called Gaspésie and we grew up there with our cousins and our animals. We missed our parents in the beginning, but soon they became a memory. We had a relatively happy childhood. My aunt and uncle were strict disciplinarians – I suppose they had to be, with so many kids to bring up. All of us wanted to leave Gaspésie – we found it incredibly boring and the bright lights of Québec beckoned us every day. But it was my sister Katie, the youngest of us all, who left first, much to the disapproval of my uncle and aunt. She met a young musician and went away with him.’
‘Where is she now, Kylie? I hope you are in touch with her?’ Rik asked anxiously, stepping into the conversation.
‘She lives in Florida now and has two adorable babies. I hear from her from time to time, but she is incredibly busy with her young family. We are very different.’
‘Well, we are not hearing much about you, Kylie’ Nikhil said rudely. ‘I would really like to know what you do now and why you decided to take a transcontinental trip at this time of the year.’
Kylie’s eyes flashed but she answered pleasantly enough. ‘Of course. But then, I can easily spin a yarn,  and you won’t be any wiser. But I won’t. Well, as I was telling you, I finished school and got accepted by Quebec University at a place called Trois Rivières. But I lost interest in Mass Communication very quickly and so never graduated. I spent a lot of time swimming and participating in cross country car rallies. But I am a trained nurse now. I want to go and work in Africa or India. And, to answer your question, I am travelling with a friend – we both graduated in November and decided to take a three month vacation before we started work.’
Kylie stopped to sip her champagne and Ena quickly interposed. ‘Come on, let us finish our drinks. I spent a long time cooking – we can always talk while we eat. Trina, Rik – please lay the table. Kylie, will you give me a hand to serve the food? Nikhil, the Sauterne is in the fridge. Can you open it please?’
As she made the toasts for smoked salmon and her homemade foie gras terrine, Kylie rolled out the thin slices of smoked salmon into small cones and arranged them on a serving dish with knobs of butter and lemon wedges. ‘Don’t pay any attention to Nikhil, Kylie. Sometimes he can be like a bear with a sore head.’
‘Don’t worry, Ena. I have a tough skin. But I don’t think he is a very welcoming person, even at the best of times. Also all three of you are afraid of him – I can see that. Excuse me Ena, I am used to speaking my mind. Please let me know if I am out of order.’
Ena did not answer and Kyle did not insist any more. They carried the trays out of the kitchen. The places were laid with festive napkins and Christmas crackers and small plastic replicas of holly beside each plate. Ena lit the perfumed candles and invited everyone to sit down.
‘Are you catholic, Kylie? We are not, and we don’t say any prayers or anything’ Nikhil said.
‘It doesn’t matter. I am your guest and your customs are mine as long as I am here. Ena, your table is beautiful. You must have spent a long time decorating?’
‘Well, yes. But then, I don’t work, you see, and I have plenty of time on my hands’ Ena replied lightly.
‘Ena enjoys staying at home, unlike a lot of her friends’ Nikhil said. ‘My wife is not a committed feminist, I am glad to say. She gave up working after Rik was born. You haven’t regretted it, have you, Darling?’ he asked.

Ena shook her head and busied herself with passing the toast rack around the table, avoiding eye contact with her husband. She had been forced to give up her own job when Nikhil accepted his current high profile and very well paid job. It is true that her firstborn was very young at that time, and she had welcomed the chance to stay at home and look after her baby son. She had not intended to become a full time wife and mother but that is what she became gradually. And then one fine day, when the children were old enough to be left on their own, she realized that she had fallen through a kind of crack – she was no longer visible to professional men and women, and least of all to potential employers. She came to accept this over time, but it still left a bitter taste in her mouth.

As she started getting up to bring the next course in, her eyes fell on the wooden Kokopelli she had bought long time back in New Mexico, along with the book on Hopi mythology. She had a special bond with Kokopelli, the charming story teller and flute player, the harbinger of spring, the deity of fertility and children and new hopes. And thus Ena made up her mind. She was not going to let her husband bully her or anyone else in the room. This was her house, her party, and it was Christmas Eve…

From that moment onward, Ena took things firmly in hand. She kept the conversation flowing, witty and sensitive and funny and absurd – regaling her family and Kylie with anecdotes and stories and reminiscences. She started a game of 20 questions while she made the gravy for her roasted lamb and put finishing touches to the vegetables. Kylie and the children laughed and bickered and blamed each other for cheating while Nikhil umpired. Nikhil kept her glass filled up and Ena felt the wine making her more and more lightheaded and euphoric. As Nikhil went into the kitchen to carve the meat, Kylie winked at her. ‘Atta girl, Ena. You are the best hostess I have ever met!’
*************************************************************************************

Midnight was striking as Ena brought the Christmas cake to the table. The church bells started ringing, calling the faithful to the midnight mass. Their street looked straight out of a picture book, with Christmas lights twinkling on balconies and windows while snowflakes kept spiraling down. The snowdrift was now almost a meter high and their cars had completely disappeared under the snow. Some of their neighbors were out in the gardens, looking like gnomes in their long coats, boots, gloves and scarves, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other.
‘Let us go out and build that snowman’ cried Rik and all three of them raced to their rooms to get dressed. Within minutes they were outside and throwing snowballs at each other. Rik found the shovel and they started building the snowman. ‘Come on Papa, come on Mum. It isn’t cold, really. Just wet’ they cried and Nikhil went away to put on the woolies. It was well past midnight when they finished the snowman, complete with a bucket and a broom and a carrot nose. Ena made hot chocolate when they came in and soon they bid each other goodnight.
‘There is no way Kylie can go anywhere tomorrow’ said Nikhil as they got into bed. ‘It was a lovely meal, Ena. We haven’t had so much fun for quite a few years now, isn’t it? Remember the Christmas Eve parties in Paris? Not much to eat but a lot to drink and all those funny games!’
‘Oh yes’ she replied and turned over to fall into a deep sleep.
*************************************************************************************

Ena opened her eyes, totally refreshed by her deep dreamless sleep. Nikhil was still fast asleep, sprawled on his stomach. The house was totally silent and the room still practically dark. Ena squinted at the bedside clock and sat up in bed. The clock was blinking – there must have been a power outage during the night. She put on her reading glasses and looked at her cell phone. It was only nine thirty in the morning. Ena grabbed her robe and switched on the bedside lamp. Nothing happened. Still slightly groggy, she didn’t pay much attention and switched on the bathroom light. And then it dawned on her – there was no electricity. She pulled the drapes back from the window to look out on a magnificent snow covered landscape. It had stopped snowing. The trees were twisted into surreal shapes, bending under the weight of the snow. Sullen clouds covered the morning sky like a thick curtain. There was no sign of life anywhere. The neighbors were probably still in bed. She put on her thick quilted robe and went outside the bedroom. She found the number to ring the electricity company easily and called them. She rang off a couple of minutes later, deeply disturbed. The high voltage cables that supplied power to their area had collapsed under the heavy snow last night and a large area was right now without electricity. The repairing teams were working on the cables, said the polite voice at the end of the line, but could not say when everything would be back to normal. They apologized for the inconvenience, adding that they could not be held responsible for natural catastrophes. This certainly was one.

Ena had grown up in a country where power outage was part of everyday life. People’s daily routines revolved around the outage schedule that was published by the electricity company every week, and although it was annoying, it did not cripple their lives. But now as she tried to envision life without electricity, she started panicking immediately. No electricity meant no heating, no hot water, no cooking appliances other than the gas hob, no television and yes, eventually no telephones. She thought about the menu she had planned for Christmas lunch and realized that other than the stuffed pheasant, she would be able to cope with the other dishes; it would just take longer. She knew that she had enough wood for the fireplace. She would find a solution for the hot water – maybe use the gas barbecue and the big copper pot she had found in the garden shade when they moved into this house. Having found solutions, however hypothetical, to immediate problems, she calmed down somewhat. She had enormous faith in the French utility companies and their efficiency and convinced herself that electricity will be restored within a very short time. She rooted around in the cupboard under the stairs and took out the metal percolator that had been replaced coffee machines and started making the morning coffee. Little did she know what the rest of the day had in store...
*************************************************************************************

They sat huddled in front of the fire, rugs and blankets spread over knees, wearing thick woolen sweaters and socks. The front room was lit by a couple of big candles that Ena had found in a cupboard. In fact, they had spent a good part of the day finding things they needed– candles, matches, torches, rugs, woolen socks. They had even found a couple of oil lamps tucked away in the bottom shelf of a cupboard in the garage. While Ena and Nikhil fretted and called the electric company several times, Kylie organized the search for the things with the children, checking out items systematically from her list. The news from the electricity company was not encouraging – the progress of the repairing team was very slow because of the strong wind. They couldn’t say when power will be restored. Kylie and the children went outside and cleared the garden path. Ena switched on the transistor radio to listen to the weather forecast: they announced another snow storm in their area from early afternoon.
‘We should go out and see what others are doing’ said Ena at one point of time.
‘How would that help us?’ asked her husband irritably. ‘No point in wasting time. We got a lot on our hands right now.’
‘Some people may need some help, Nik. Think about the old couple that lives two houses down the road. Maybe some people need mundane things like candles and matches. Also, I would like to walk down to the gym. They have generators, you know, and we absolutely need a solution for charging our phone, don’t we?’
‘Yes, I think this is a very sensible idea’ said Kylie. ‘Let us go right now, before the snow starts again. Maybe others are there already? That is what we do in Canada – gather in a central place – church or town hall or stadium and then figure out how we can help each other out.’
‘Canadians are very philanthropic then, Kylie. Doesn’t really happen here’ said Nikhil sarcastically.
‘How can you know, Nik? Have you ever talked to anyone in the village other than saying ‘Bonjour’ when you can’t really avoid it? We don’t even go to the village fairs anymore now that kids have grown up’ said Ena. ‘I need to start the midday meal. Rik and Trina will go with you. Find out what is happening. Children, ask people if we can help in any way.’

The snow storm started in the afternoon, just as the weather office had predicted. The news from the village council was not encouraging – the Mayor had apparently spent the whole morning trying to find out about the repair work of the overhead electric lines, without much success. The public works department was totally overstretched, trying to keep the main roads clean – the snow ploughs won’t get to the village that day. Monsieur Roche, the village baker, had agreed to bake some bread in his old wood fired oven. The generator in the Gym will be switched on at regular intervals so that people could charge their phones and computers. Several people had volunteered to help out the old and the infirm to clear the paths and driveways. Kylie and Rik had joined one such team that afternoon and shoveled snow while Trina stayed at home to help Ena prepare the evening meal. It was cold in the kitchen and the water was ice cold, almost stinging to the touch. Nikhil joined them in the kitchen, complaining about the lack of preparedness of the French utilities. ‘Papa, I’m sure things will get better tomorrow. They will be able to repair the overhead lines once the storm passes over.’
‘Maybe, but I am more worried about the roads, Trina. Don’t know how I can get to work tomorrow.’
‘You’ll have to work from home then’ said Ena. ‘In any case, things are a bit calmer now, isn’t it?’

Now, as they sat in front of the fire, he continued to sulk while Kylie told them about Gaspésie and her life there. She was a good story teller and Ena could almost see the cliffs bordering the mighty St Lawrence River, the Appalachian Mountains and the hiking trails that revealed extraordinary views almost at every bend. She told them about the cross country rallies she had participated in and that one time she had driven along the winter roads in Manitoba; about the fishing expeditions and the hiking weekends; about the farm she had grown up in. At one point of time Ena noticed that Nikhil was listening to her stories with great attention. He even started participating in the conversation, and went on to recount his own experiences of mountain climbing back in India and then in England. Rik and Trina listened to his stories, totally amazed to discover this other personality of their father. Ena smiled in pleasure to rediscover the young Nik she had married almost fifteen years back.

The fire was almost dying out and so father and son went outside to get more wood to replenish the fire and Kylie proposed to make hot chocolate for all of them. They started a game of dumb charade and soon forgot the dark and the cold house. Nikhil had the two girls in her team and Ena teamed up with her son. As the game progressed Ena noticed that Nikhil had really warmed up to the Canadian girl. Ena couldn’t remember the last time they had had so much fun together as a family. Probably not since they had visited Disneyland, when Trina was only about five. She tried to ignore the nagging unease as the evening progressed, as did Nikhil’s growing interest in their charming guest…
*************************************************************************************

The snow ploughs did not get to their locality the next day, though the electricity came back sometime during the night. Ena woke up once again to the blinking bedside clock but this time she was overjoyed. She made a beeline for the shower, feeling human once again as the hot jets of water washed away the grime from her hair and her body. The sun was shining brightly and it was bitterly cold. The snow in the garden had hardened overnight and resembled an ice skating rink. The outside thermometer showed five degree Celsius below zero, and unless the temperature climbed during the day, the thaw would not set in. There was no way Nikhil could drive to work till the snow started melting. She walked back into the bedroom and found her husband on the phone, making arrangements to work from home. Relieved, she went into the kitchen to make a big hot breakfast.

Ena spent a large part of the morning with Kylie, chatting and doing chores around the house. Rik and Trina were in front of their computers, probably catching up on everything they had missed on the social media in the last couple of days. Nikhil did not seem very interested in his job today and frequently drifted outside his study. The sun was still shining brightly and it was still beastly cold when they finished lunch and Nikhil suggested they all go for a walk to help digest the meal. The kids immediately declined – they had things to do, apparently. Ena refused as well – she was scared of slipping on the icy roads and had no intention to end up with a twisted knee or a fractured bone. Kylie agreed enthusiastically, saying that a walk would definitely do her a lot of good. They wrapped themselves in thick coats and scarves and hats and set off, equipped with trekking poles to keep their balance. They didn’t come back till very late.
*************************************************************************************

The snow plough came in late that night and woke Ena up. Its powerful lights lit up the houses on the street and her bedroom as well. Ena went to the window and watched the powerful blade push the snow to the side of the road where it would remain till the thaw set in. A big silvery moon hung low in a clear cloudless sky, moonlight glinting off the snow clad branches. Ena sighed and got back into bed. Kylie would certainly leave tomorrow, probably by train. There was no reason for her to stay here anymore. ‘They have cleared the roads, Nik’ she said softly. ‘You’ll be able to go to your office tomorrow.’

Nikhil was already in the shower when Ena got up, a bit later than usual. He must have been up early, thought Ena, because both cars were now clear of the snow that had covered them. The snow around the wheels was shoveled off – there would be no problem starting the cars now. She hurried into the kitchen to brew the coffee and make Nikhil’s breakfast. Nikhil walked in soon after, knotting his tie and sat down at the table.
‘Ena, I have to go to Paris today for a meeting. Got the message this morning. I hope the roads won’t be too bad, and won’t freeze over again tonight. And yes, I have offered a lift to Kylie. I hope she’ll be ready in time.’
‘I am all packed and ready to leave’ Kylie said, walking into the kitchen with her backpack and satchel. ‘I have stripped my bed and put everything in the wash basket, Ena. I wish I had time to clean up my room better. I do hope it isn’t too bad.’
Ena handed Kylie a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. ‘Do you want anything else, Kylie?’ she asked. ‘Don’t worry about the room. My cleaner Ethel will be in today.’
Kylie nodded as she tucked into her breakfast. She did not say a word to Nikhil, not even good morning, and Nikhil did not seem to notice either. She seemed preoccupied and was not her usual bubbly talkative self.
‘I’ll call the kids’ said Ena ‘they’ll want to say goodbye to you, Kylie’ and walked out of the kitchen.
Kylie hugged them all and picked up her backpack. ‘I wish you could stay a bit longer Kylie’ said Trina. ‘It was real fun this Christmas.’
‘It was wonderful for me too. Ena, I don’t know how to thank you, so I won’t try. I wish I could ask you all to come and visit me in Québec, but I don’t even know where I am going to be. Rik and Trina have my email address and phone number. I hope you’ll write to me some time.’
Ena hugged the young girl. ‘But you know where we are, Kylie. Come back whenever you want.’

She watched the car disappear around the bend and then came back. It was a lot warmer today and the sun was out, though a bit veiled. The snow on the treetops had already started melting and was bound to disappear soon. She gave her children breakfast and walked into the bathroom. And stopped short in front of the mirror. The right hand shelf unit that Nikhil used for his toilet things was totally empty. She walked into the bedroom and pulled open his chest of drawers. That too was half empty. And now she saw the envelope propped up on her pillow and knew it was from Nikhil. She looked at its pristine white color for some time and then picked it up.

‘I am sorry’ started the first line and Ena put the letter back in the envelope. She will read it later, she decided. There was no hurry. Right now she had a host of other things to do….


[APARAJITA SEN]


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