By Rinu Antony
It was not the sound that bothered her but what it meant. Everyone would reach their destination except for her. She remained seated at one end of the bus stop bench. The screeching and rattling sound of the engine continued and then the tyres seemed to screech. She could hear the sigh of relief from some of the passengers in the window seats.
Marjorie avoided looking at a particular window where a little boy had been staring at her for quite a while as if wondering why she sat alone outside while others were inside the bus. Marjorie’s stomach churned with not only the odour of fumes but also with the idea that the boy could see through her.
She felt he could see that she wasn’t eager to return to her home.
To Marjorie’s relief and disappointment, the bus had started and moved towards its destinations. But no sooner was the bus gone that Marjorie regretted not getting in.
Maybe, I should have been on that bus. Maybe…
The night sky was aglow with bright city lights. Marjorie looked across the petrol pump on the other side of the road. Long queue of vehicles, both two wheelers and four wheelers, were seen stretching for several metres at the petrol pump. Her eyes lingered on a woman who drove by on her scooter. Marjorie had wanted to buy a scooter for herself for a year now. But she couldn’t save enough money to buy a scooter.
So lost she was with the activities at the petrol pump and the regrets of her life, that she didn’t notice a person occupying the middle of the seat. A sound made her look to her right. A chubby woman clad in saree was rummaging through her shopping bag. With her hand buried inside her bag, the woman looked up and met Marjorie’s eyes. Marjorie looked away.
A tongue clicking sound drew Marjorie’s attention towards the stranger.
The woman tossed some roasted peanuts into her hand from a paper roll and offered them to Marjorie. Marjorie looked at the outstretched hand and at the woman. She was disgusted with the idea that the woman offered her peanuts with her unwashed hand and with that hand she was going to eat the peanuts herself.
Marjorie shook her head and forced a smile, “No thanks.”
The woman shrugged her shoulder which irritated Marjorie. It reminded her of a school friend of hers who’d shrug her shoulder too often for no reason. It was also this friend who introduced Marjorie to cigarettes and cuss words and broke her friendship when Marjorie told her how her father caught her smoking a cigarette.
Bad influences can ruin your life. Her father used to say. It reminded her of her sister now. She lifted her wrist to check the time on her wrist watch and wondered what her sister might be doing now. Worrying about her child?
“Where are you heading?”
Once again, Marjorie turned to face the woman but didn’t respond. Only when the woman’s eyebrows shot up and the corners of her lips rose imperceptibly did Marjorie respond.
“Actually, I needed to go to a medical shop. Wanted to buy some medicine for my niece. She’s sick. I should have bought it while coming from work but I forgot. I was on my way home when the bus broke down here. All the passengers got down. Suddenly I felt sick. By the time the bus started again, I felt too dizzy even to stand up. So I decided to sit here till I felt okay,” said Marjorie.
God! Why did I have to say all that? Wondered Marjorie.
The woman smiled and shook her head. Does she know I’m lying? No, that’s not possible! Or is it easy to read me?
Marjorie knew she should have asked the woman in return where she was headed but she didn’t have the energy in getting involved in chit chat. So she remained quiet.
“How old is your niece?” The woman asked.
Instead of answering, Marjorie dug out her phone from her purse, opened it and showed her the picture of her sister and niece.
“She’s your sister?”
Marjorie replaced the mobile into her purse.
How does she know?
The ominous sound of the siren of an ambulance drew their attention towards it.
“I don’t like to see ambulances,” said the woman and looked away.
Neither did Marjorie. She wondered if there was any soul on Earth who looked at ambulances with awe and interest as one looked at BMW.
Both the women remained quiet till the sound of the siren faded into the distance. Marjorie cupped her nose when dozens of vehicles stopped at the traffic signal. It wasn’t as Marjorie wasn’t used to the odour of exhaust fumes from vehicles. Maybe, it was the familiarity that bothered her. When she was a pre-schooler, every morning, Marjorie would accompany her father as he’d begin his work as an autorickshaw driver. She enjoyed those moments with her father — away from her bickering mother. Then, as the years rolled by, Marjorie got busy with her school and friends. But Marjorie was never a bright student and her father often expressed his disappointment in her. Few times, Marjorie tried but failed to take her studies seriously. Her father also never approved of her friends and blamed them for her poor performance in school. He firmly believed that Marjorie would never succeed in life. So, he shifted his attention from Marjorie to his younger daughter. Unlike her, Marjorie’s sister was quiet, obedient, respectful and studious. Her father had high hopes for her. Marjorie and her father’s relationship became strained over a period of time.
Marjorie was glad her father was dead, else he’d be heartbroken.
“What is your sister’s name?”
Once again, Marjorie looked at the woman. The woman’s face seemed to glisten under the artificial lights.
Why? You didn’t ask my name. Why do you want to know my sister’s name?
It was as if the woman read her mind.
“What’s your name?”
Marjorie couldn’t help but smile. “Marjorie. My sister’s name is Tara and her daughter’s, Urja.”
“I’m Mehak. Mehak, a unhappily married woman with no interest in life.”
A city bus stopped in front of them. Neither woman got in.
Despite herself, Marjorie was suddenly curious to know about the woman’s life.
Probably her husband has affair with another woman, thought Marjorie.
Again, it seemed the woman heard her thoughts.
“He’s like any other normal, common husband. I don’t have any complaints with him,” Mehak paused and turned her attention to the petrol station. “But I lost my mother and brother in an accident a few months after our marriage. They were accompanying me to my in-laws house when the accident occurred. They died on the spot. After recuperating in the hospital for three months, I walked out of the hospital like a normal person. But nothing felt normal afterwards. Nothing. It strained my relationship with my husband. But he doesn’t care nor do I.”
Strained relationships are difficult to mend, thought Marjorie. Her own relationship with her father had never mended. Their relationship was coloured with their occasional fights, her father’s disapproval of her friends, clothes, bad grades, dabble with smoking, impudent behaviour. The list went on. But it was his comparison between her and her sister that hurt her the most. He never stopped doing that till his last breath. Her mother was a silent spectator whose only concern was providing meal to her family at the right time and occasionally complaining about her husband’s low income.
“What does your sister do for a living?”
Why don’t you ask about me?
My sister does nothing!
“She has to care for her baby so —
For some unknown reason, the woman laughed drawing Marjorie’s attention towards her.
The woman met her eyes with the remnant of the laugh in the form of a smile now.
“She doesn’t work, does she? Perhaps, her husband does.”
The way she said it rattled Marjorie and she decided not to respond to the woman. There was something wrong with the woman. Maybe after losing her mother and brother, she had become bitter inside, thought Marjorie.
“What about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a web developer,” said Marjorie quickly before she realised her mistake. I shouldn’t have answered her.
The woman was silent. Maybe she doesn’t know what web developers did. Should I explain it to her?
“I’m an alcoholic,” said the woman in a rasping voice.
Marjorie was looking at the woman now. She wasn’t sure if she heard her right.
The woman looked serious, “You heard me.”
“Are you drunk now?”
A humourless laugh sliced through the air.
“I had only one glass of whiskey before leaving house. Would that make me drunk? I’m childless and trapped in loveless marriage. My husband is also an alcoholic so I give him company now and then. Though we don’t love each other, we share our love for alcohol and that’s how we continue to live with each other.”
Marjorie checked the time on her phone thought of leaving. Instead, she remained seated. She was surprised that her sister hadn’t called her already. Then she realised she had turned on airplane mode. Another bus stopped in front of them and four passengers got out. Two crossed the road and two sat on the seat with them.
The woman scooted near Marjorie and leaning towards her, said, “Your name? ”
Marjorie could detect the alcohol in the woman’s breath now. “I already told you. Marjorie.”
“My father named me.”
“Fathers are good. Mine lost his sanity after the death of my mother and brother.”
Marjorie thought about her niece’s father. She didn’t know who he was. Despite asking her numerous times, her sister hadn’t revealed any details about her child’s father. Marjorie hated her for that. Hated her sister for keeping a secret from her who was taking care of her and her child. Hated her for being their father’s favourite daughter.
Not only Marjorie had to care for her sister and niece but also had to send cash to her mother who lived in their old house alone.
Marjorie’s life was like a monsoon sky with a grey veil of clouds.
“Is your sister nice to you?”
Marjorie turned and examined the woman’s face. Her eyes moved towards the other two people who were busy with their phones.
“Of course, she is nice to me. We’re siblings!” Marjorie didn’t hide her irritation.
“Not true. Some siblings are sworn enemies and some cannot stand each other.”
No, there was no sibling rivalry when they were young nor now. In fact, when she thought of her sister no emotion got hold of her. No hatred. No envy. No love.
She felt nothing for her sister. She knew her sister felt the same about her.
While growing up, Marjorie spent most of her time with her friends and socialising while her sister studied. Her sister was always the smarter one between them.
Where did you go wrong, Tara? How could you conceive a child out of wedlock?
Marjorie remembered that night vividly. It was past 10pm, and having done with her usual two cigarettes and halfway through a movie, Marjorie’s droopy eyes snapped wide open with the ringing of the doorbell. Her heart hammered in her chest as she peered out of the peephole. She couldn’t believe her eyes! Tara stood on the other side of the door. For a brief moment, Marjorie didn’t believe her eyes. Why was her sister here? She was supposed to be in her college hostel in Delhi.
Marjorie unlocked the latch and yanked the door open. Another surprise! Her sister who had always been lean had put on considerable weight. Her chubby cheeks glistened with sweat and her belly fat showed in her shirt.
“It’s getting hotter day by day,” Tara had said and smiled.
The next day Tara revealed her condition to Marjorie. Marjorie remembered her reactions. First she didn’t believe her sister, then she was shocked and then she was furious.
Tara didn’t complete her third year but could no longer stay in the hostel as her baby bump began to show. To add to Marjorie’s fury, Tara wanted to keep her unborn child. They didn’t tell their mother or anyone known to them.
You cannot guess how the future would unfold, daddy. I’m glad you’re dead or Tara’s condition would have killed you of broken heart.
Three years ago, her father had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. The costs of treatment were too high and he had succumbed to the disease. However, before he breathed his last, he called Tara to himself. Clasping her hand, he had wished her a successful life. He had also asked her to make their family proud. Then, he was gone.
Marjorie’s reverie broke as she noticed a bus in the distance. It was time for her to get back home. She turned to Mehak and met her eyes. The corner of Mehak’s lips rose but her eyes were a different story. Her eyes were soulless and distant, yet directed at Marjorie. Suddenly, Marjorie felt pity for the woman. Then, her eyes went to the other two seated on the bench and she wondered what their stories were.
The bus stopped before them and the conductor, standing near the bus door, shouted out the names of the stop and the destination at origin stops. One was Marjorie’s location. Marjorie stood up and moved towards the bus. As some passengers were getting down, Marjorie turned. For some unknown reason her heart ached as she smiled at Mehak. She felt as if she was leaving someone close to her. Mehak grinned back at her and Marjorie boarded the bus.
Rinu Antony is a graduate of Nagpur University where she earned her masters in English literature. She works as a freelance writer and lives in a small town, Chimur.
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