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Stories

Thicker Than Water

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

From his vantage point just inside the doorway of the international terminal’s arrival area, he observed the children. Full of energy and in high spirits, they were running up and down the waiting section while the grownups chatted. When they neared the coffee shop, however, they halted and looked longingly at the muffins, doughnuts, and other treats that were temptingly displayed behind the glass counter. The boy then whispered something urgently to the little girl, and she obediently ran back to where the four adults stood. Tugging at her mother’s arm, she tried to get her attention, but the women were too engrossed in conversation to pay heed. Besides, such entreaties were routine, and as such were to be routinely ignored!

A helpless glance back at the counter received a glare of such imperative that she turned to one of the men in the group, ostensibly more amenable to requests from her (and therefore, probably the father). He continued to watch with suppressed amusement as the parent was dragged by hand to the shop, where the over-priced sweetmeats were promptly procured with rather too many dollars and an indulgent smile. Duty done, the man sauntered back to his group and was once more lost in conversation.

The children remained near the counter, eyes shining bright with delight as they beamed at each other over the goodies, unwittingly smearing powdered sugar and frosting on chins and cheeks as they feasted. He was rather pleasantly surprised to observe some peaceable and generous sharing of treats too — although, as he told himself in a cynical after-thought, the goodwill might partly have been engendered by a sugar high!

He looked at them more closely. The little girl was chubby and rosy-cheeked, and her hair was neatly done up in two tight braids that were held in shape with predictably bright-pink hair ties. With her beatific smile, she reminded him of a cute angel decoration he had once seen in The Dollar Shop. The boy was taller, probably a few years older, and seemed quiet and serious.

But then, looks could be deceptive, he thought with a rueful smile.

Although the inside of the airport was temperature-controlled, it was winter, and he was glad of the warmth of his jacket. He zipped it up to his throat and began to walk up and down the long and narrow waiting area, momentarily forgetting the children that had so interested him. He had arrived earlier than he had expected to, but it was a Sunday and the roads had been free. The flight had landed on time, and he estimated that passengers would soon be coming out after the usual hour it took to collect baggage and pass through immigration.

A piercing shriek startled him and silenced conversationalists all around. Turning swiftly, he saw the little girl, now in tears, pointing to the boy and sobbing out a complaint to her father, while the culprit scowled and slunk away out of his reach, mightily embarrassed by the scrutiny of everyone in the vicinity. The mother’s attention was also momentarily drawn, and he could hear her call out rather shrilly, “How many times have I told you not to pull your sister’s hair?!”

After the momentary lull, people turned away and picked up where they had left off, and he too resumed his pacing, half-smiling. But his thoughts were far away.

A memory flashed into his mind, painful in its intensity. Of a mother’s sorrow and a father’s anger. Of his own shock and dismay. He had not thought that the smack he gave the child in a moment of fury would cause her to cut her lip such that it bled…

As he paused to turn back, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the tinted glass window and was taken aback by the look of deep remorse on his face.

But then, he remembered other incidents. Of his mother applying cold cream on his chest and a penitent little girl asking if she could help –- the feel of her small fingers and the cool, soothing effect of the emollient as she gently rubbed it on the raw, semi-circular marks that had been made by her small teeth…

And the time she had pushed all the things off his desk in a rage, no doubt infuriated by something he had said or done. Words had quickly turned to blows and screams, leading their normally gentle and soft-spoken father to separate them with speech and look of such potent disappointment as left them more shaken than if they had been penalised through any form of corporal punishment. 

He found himself grinning then, feeling oddly relieved that in those years now seemingly eons away, things had not been one-sided after all! Like warriors, they had drawn each other’s blood…

As he reached the coffee shop now, he saw that people had begun to come down the arrival ramp and he quickened his steps towards it. Passengers were arriving singly, or in twos and threes, pushing trolleys or wheeling suitcases, and everywhere pairs of eyes were looking for familiar faces. He too craned his neck, trying to look beyond the tall and stout man, the old lady and her husband being wheeled out by airport attendants, and the harassed-looking couple with several small children.

There she was now!

She seemed rather tired as evidenced by the dark circles under her eyes appearing more pronounced than usual. But more than that, it was her haunted look that arrested him. With anxious eyes she was scanning the waiting crowd and when she caught sight of him, her face brightened briefly with the smile he had once known so well. Although her hair was flecked with premature grey and slightly tousled from the journey, it seemed to have been cut it in a different, shorter style that was elegant and suited her. She carried herself with a quiet dignity and he thought she still looked beautiful.

His heart swelled with a mixture of warmth and pride, that was yet tinged with pain.

They hugged briefly and she replied satisfactorily to his query about the comfort of the journey. As he took hold of her trolley and turned to lead the way out, they passed the family he had noticed earlier, still in their place a little way away from the arriving crowd. They were probably waiting for a different flight, maybe one that had been delayed.

The adults were watching the arrivals with superficial interest, but he noted that the siblings were now quietly going through a comic book together in apparent camaraderie. He suspected that sooner or later, one of them would again be shrieking in aggravation, but right now, the sight of their small heads bent close to each other as they pored over the pictures, cheered him greatly.

“Oh, so cute…!” he heard her whisper behind him, evidently equally struck by the scene. “Yeah, ha, ha,” he responded, feeling a peace settle on him that he had not experienced for a decade.

As the car sped along the empty roads, they spoke a little, skimming lightly over the surfaces of mostly impersonal topics. Common acquaintances back in India, certain kinds of air travellers, and a movie she had watched on the long journey were mentioned without much enthusiasm, with both concurring readily on the respective idiosyncrasies of the subjects under discussion. (In-flight meals were a slightly more rousing matter — she thought they were awful, he exclaimed in surprise.)

In between, he pointed out key landmarks like the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, not much else being view-worthy in the growing dark. She seemed listless, and unspoken emotions hung between them like a heavy curtain that he had not the courage, nor she the words, to draw aside.

But finally, she broke the silence. “I didn’t listen to any of you, did not take you into confidence, and ended up making a mess of my life! And yet, here you are now…” Her voice shook, and she could not go on.

He tried to make light of it. “Well, we only read about extreme cases where women commit suicide because they have nowhere to go — we never read about the scores of families that support their girls in their times of need. They would not make news because that is what families are for — that is what they should do. Families are meant to provide unconditional support!” 

She did not reply, yet something seemed to shift in the atmosphere. And then, just like that, there was no longer any curtain hanging oppressively between them.  

“Do you remember…?” he began and launched into one of his amusing anecdotes just like in the old days, and she was surprised to find that she had it in her to laugh again. And the miles flew by.

“We’re almost there now… this is our street,” he said shortly, as they turned right onto a quiet and dark lane.

She sat up straighter and looked out with interest. They were passing shadowy houses with glowing windows, half-hidden behind dark trees that added to the atmosphere of mystery, and she felt a growing excitement as she gazed at them. The scenes had a magical quality that transported her back to childhood, bringing before her mind’s eye the charming illustrations of fairy tales read and re-read in the happy security of her parents’ home. The memory lit a small lamp in her heart that she had thought was beyond re-kindling.

“And here we are!” he said suddenly, slowing before one of the dark house fronts.

As they turned into the driveway, the porch bulb burned bright, and even while the car was rolling to a stop, she saw the front door open and light from the house spill out. Silhouetted in the doorway stood the familiar figure of a woman, pulling her wrap tightly around herself to ward off the chill. It seemed to her as she watched from the car, that the golden rays dancing about her sister-in-law’s head as she waited to welcome her, were just like a star on a Christmas tree.

Then the light in her own heart flared up, flooding her being with a warmth that had nothing to do with the heater in the car. She felt a decade of tension leave her body as the years rolled off her mind and person like a mantle she had just shrugged off.

She turned to look at him as he switched off the engine and slid the gear into park. It struck her then that her brother’s care-worn face now looked relaxed and cheerful, and surprisingly younger, lit as it was by the warm glow from his house and perhaps from deep within as well.

“You’re home now,” he said simply.

And then they beamed at each other, bright-eyed children in a doughnut shop.

Revathi Ganeshsundaram taught in a Business School in South India for several years until she recently decided to take a break to study Counseling Psychology. A self-professed introvert, she is comfortable in the company of family, books, and herself  — not necessarily in the same order. She finds the written word therapeutic and, hence, loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling a little in poetry. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Stories

Litmus

By Revathi Ganeshsundaram

He did not like animals. Or so he said. In any case, the children were discouraged from harbouring dreams of ever having a pet.

He was an asthmatic. Viewed from that perspective, it made sense. “Father’s allergy will be triggered by pet fur,” they were told.

He was also a stickler for hygiene. He disapproved of children playing with animals, even the pets of friends and relatives. “Wash your hands!” he would say. “Don’t let them jump onto the bed! They must be harbouring all kinds of germs and parasites… And they’ll shed their fur all over the place!”

And so on, for years.

It was a rainy day. The family was away visiting the maternal grandmother, but he had come home for lunch as he always did. He had flexible timings and he wasn’t planning to go back this afternoon. He could work on the research paper he was writing, from home.

He had his lunch, then listened to songs on the radio until he drifted off into afternoon siesta. When he woke, the downpour had increased. It was only 4 p.m. but the overcast skies made the world look dark and gloomy.

He rose slowly, put on his slippers and listened to the sound of the rain increasing in volume. He went around the house, shutting the windows that were still open. Then it was time for his coffee.

He brewed fresh decoction and heated milk in a pan, all the while watching the rain through the kitchen window. After he mixed himself a cup of strong coffee, there was still some warm milk left. Covering the pan with a lid, he took his cup out into the living room to have it in the comfort of his favourite armchair.

The room was now quite dark. He switched on the light and as he did so, he thought he heard something on the verandah and paused to listen.

The sound was very faint, but then he coughed involuntarily, and he could now hear it again, loud and clear. It was a cat! No doubt seeking shelter from the rain in the safety of the verandah, and having heard him cough, responding to him.

“As long as you stay there!” he muttered to himself as he went to sit down. But the mournful mewing only grew louder.

He tried ignoring it for a while, but the incessant wailing soon began to get on his nerves. In addition, the creature was now moving backwards and forwards outside the verandah door, and each time it passed, would thump against it.

He could not enjoy his coffee.

“Shoo!” he called out loudly. “Go away or be quiet!” But this only made the cat more persistent in its clamour to get his attention.

He took another sip of his rapidly cooling beverage and as he did so, there was a difference in the sound of the rain as it seemed to change direction. He could see from the window that it was now pouring in a slanting fashion, at about forty-five degrees to the ground.

The verandah must be completely wet, he found himself thinking. He listened carefully but couldn’t hear anything now. Hope it’s gone away.

He needed some more coffee, a piping-hot cup this time. But when he rose to go back into the kitchen, he paused for a moment, then changed his mind and moved towards the verandah. He walked softly, making as little noise as his slippers would allow him, and pressed his ear against the door. Just the steady, monotonous sound of the rain.

Still, he could not turn away. Curiosity — or perhaps, something more — compelled him to linger a moment longer. He thought he heard something now, very faintly.

He had to know.

Very, very gently, he turned the doorknob and using his knee, carefully nudged the door open a crack.

He was greeted by a loud and pitiful yowling and at the same time caught sight of what looked like a damp black rag, which immediately unfurled itself and started pacing frantically, barely keeping an inch away from the door.

He hesitated. He could hear the rain, smell the fresh, damp earth, and feel the chill through the sliver of gap between the door and the jamb. He could also see that the entire verandah was drenched, right up to the door.

He wrestled with something within himself, then made a sudden decision. “Move aside,” he said. “I’m going to open the door now, move…!”

As he carefully pushed the door open still further, the cat’s yowling hit his ears like a blast of wind, even as the elements themselves tried to pour into the room. He stepped back a little, and emboldened by his moving away, the little bundle of fur slunk towards the door, then shot quickly past him and into the warmth.

He shut the door again.

They eyed each other warily for a moment, and when he did not make any threatening movements, his unwelcome guest started mewing pitifully again, all the while looking up at his face.

“Stop that now!” he said sternly. “I’ve let you in, haven’t I? Now sit still and leave me in peace!”

But it wouldn’t.

It stepped closer to him and before he could realise what it was doing, started rubbing its wet little body against his legs. It took a moment for him to recover from the shock, and then he gave a yell and stamped his feet to chase it away.

“Stay away from me!” he ordered crossly. “Go, go!”

He went back to his armchair and sat down, keeping a stern eye on the cat all the while. When it found that he had no intention of moving again for the time being, it jumped onto another chair nearby and settled into a snoozing position, intermittently making faint mewing sounds which gradually tapered off.

He watched it like an eagle until he felt fairly certain that it had finally dozed off. Its eyes were shut and its paws were tucked snugly beneath its little body, and its breathing was soft but sounded — as if it were wheezing…

It sounded just like him

He listened for some time, lost in thought, and when he finally looked down at his coffee cup, he was almost surprised that it was empty; he had forgotten.

Well, it was time for a refill!

But as he stood up, the feline sprang to life, jumping off the chair and running to him with loud, hungry mews. Once again, he stamped his feet and ordered it to keep away, but though it moved away from him, it continued to yowl and tried to approach him from a different direction.

Scolding, stomping, slapping his free hand on the surfaces of furniture, he managed to make his tortuous way into the kitchen and shut himself in. “I better stay in here if I want to have my coffee in peace!” he muttered to himself.

As he lit the stove to warm the milk again, the mewing and yowling continued outside the kitchen. The periodic thumping against the door too resumed. 

He switched off the stove and tried to peer through the window. The visibility was so low he could barely see the trees outside, and the rain showed no signs of abating.

He sighed.

***

He found a soft slice in the bread box. Rummaging in the cupboard turned up a shallow unused dish. He tore the bread into small pieces and put them in the dish.

Then he reached for the warm pan, and as he poured, the dish filled with the milk of human kindness.

***

Revathi Ganeshsundaram taught in a Business School in South India for several years until she recently decided to take a break to study Counseling Psychology. A self-professed introvert, she is comfortable in the company of family, books, and herself  — not necessarily in the same order. She finds the written word therapeutic and, hence, loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling a little in poetry. 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.