By Revathi Ganeshsundaram
She moved softly towards the edge of the balcony and stood there for a moment looking at the well-kept garden below. She could see an old man sitting on a bench, leaning heavily on one armrest, and she smiled in aesthetic pleasure at the picturesque contrast his grey shirt and trousers made with the dark brown wood on which he was seated and the sea of bright green grass that surrounded him. A row of colourful parakeets dotted the back of the garden seat and its other armrest in an uncannily equidistant arrangement, thereby completing the scenic view.
Although the old man was facing away from her, she was struck by his drooping shoulders and the overall impression he gave, of flagging hope. What ailed him?
Was he a convalescing patient, or an anxious relative? Was it a sick spouse he was waiting on, or an injured grandchild?With a pang, she thought: Is it a birth that awaits him, or…?
So many questions!
She sighed, a little disappointed that she would not be here when the answers came, in their own sweet time.
Something large and white swooped down just then, and she saw that it was a cockatoo, eagerly pecking at something in the as-yet dewy lawn, and as she watched, she saw two more alight nearby. She vaguely remembered reading something mystical about these birds but could not recall exactly.
Some distance away, a rather ugly turkey waddled onto the scene, and she could not stop herself from thinking that it somehow spoilt the pretty picture-postcard effect. She smiled then, a little guiltily. Who was she to judge?
Someone had left a wheelchair out here, which was rather strange, given that they always seemed short of wheelchairs when you asked for one. Although she no longer needed it, she felt an urge to go over and seat herself in the rather abandoned-looking contraption. That was when she realised that there was something wrong with one of its wheels. No wonder it was not in use right now!
But it was still most disorganised of housekeeping to have left it out on the balcony, she thought as she settled herself in it, anyway.
It was so calm and peaceful out here in the early morning and she was glad of the solitude. Before long, there would be bedlam in the ward, but for now, she was on her own.
So quiet, so strange. Nothing had prepared her for this – it was really, so very peaceful.
And yet, why did she have this unfulfilled feeling, this one unchecked item in her bucket list?
Could it be that she had wanted it too much? Perhaps, she had wished too hard.
What was it they said – Let it go, then it will come to you? Perhaps she had never really let go…
She sighed again. Nothing to complain about, after all. A good husband, although he had died many years back, may he rest in peace. Good sons, who were taking turns looking after her. Why, even now, one of them was sleeping soundly back in the room, exhausted no doubt, by the several night-time interruptions that he uncomplainingly stayed awake to attend.
Her eldest. Her heart went out to him. She wished she could tell him that she had not meant to be a bother, that she had not wanted to trouble any of them. But they had never really been good at expressing feelings to each other.
Well, things would be all right. Eventually.
She was aware of the stranger’s arrival on the balcony even before she saw him. She let him stand there for a moment and get his bearings before she turned to acknowledge his presence with a smile. He smiled back.
It felt as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
He leaned over the railings to look down into the garden and she too turned to look again at the bench below. The old man was now rising from his seat, using the armrest to propel himself into a standing position while resting his weight on a stick. She noticed that his walking aid had a clawed foot with four prongs. It was strange that she could count them from this distance, but she supposed it was one of the perks of her situation.
On the man’s stirring from his hitherto statue-like posture, the parakeets on the bench took flight and rose into the air as one, like a multicoloured festoon on an invisible string. How pretty!
Her companion on the balcony had turned around now and with his back against the railings, was looking at her. She gazed back at him serenely and they smiled at each other once more. It seemed that no words were needed.
But it would still be nice to talk.
Almost as if he read her thoughts, he said, “It’s so peaceful, isn’t it?”
She nodded, raising her eyebrows in agreement.
“What a contrast…!” he continued, gesturing with a circular motion of his hand towards the inside of the building and indicating a lower floor. “I mean, down there…”
“Heart attack?” she queried gently.
It might have seemed a terribly rude question to anyone listening, especially since they were her very first words to a total stranger – her sons would certainly be horrified if they knew – but she was over eighty and old age brought with it certain privileges that the young could never understand.
He did not seem to mind, anyway, as she had known he would not. He raised his fist in a thumbs-up gesture and smiled at her again. Such a sweet smile he had, too.
“And you?” he asked.
“Well, just old age – all sorts of little complications… That is how it starts, you know.”
He looked doubtfully at her. “You don’t look that old to me – I mean, really – I’m not just flattering you…”
It was interesting that he could blush, even now.
She laughed. “I’m eighty,” she said and at his look of surprise, went on with a smile, “I believe you – that you are not flattering me – people always said I was very well-preserved…!”
He snorted. “What an expression! Sounds as though they’re referring to a bottle of pickles!”
She laughed again and looked at him with interest. “You can’t be above sixty-five yourself…”
He cast a sidelong glance at her, looking both pleased and self-conscious as he replied, “I’m seventy-two.”
They smiled again. It was such a comfortable feeling, this camaraderie with a perfect stranger. And yet, it did not feel like he was a stranger at all.
“What kept you?” she asked. Another strange question it would seem, to any eavesdropper, but to him it made perfect sense.
“The doctor would not let me go,” he said. “A very conscientious young chap… It was awful to see the look on his face – I felt I had let him down…”
She nodded. It was ironic that one tended to feel sorry for the people who left, when it was those left behind who needed sympathy. Her thoughts went to her sons, and then she wondered about her companion.
“Who do you have here with you?” she asked, a little curiously.
He coughed in embarrassment. “Nobody, really. A neighbour brought me here, and I guess my friends will be in sooner or later…”
“I’m sorry.” She really was. She thought again of her two lovely sons and was grateful.
She looked away through the railings and was once more impressed by the scene before her: It was as if someone had daubed bright streaks of paint onto a green canvas – a few large and white, and several smaller ones of varied hues – only, none of those spots of colour were still; some of them took wing even as she watched.
She was aware all the while that he was glancing at her on and off, so she was not surprised when he asked again, “And you?”
There was the faintest trace of anxiety in his voice, and she thought she caught a flash of jealousy in his dark eyes before he looked quickly away.
“My elder son is here with me now. He’s the more responsible one though he hates to show his affection openly…” She smiled with a mixture of fondness and regret as she thought of their most recent disagreement. She had not wanted to be hospitalised, but then she became so sick that she no longer had any say in the matter.
Looking back now — all those arguments seemed such a waste of time. And life. Or perhaps both were the same.
She looked up to see him listening intently and went on, “The younger one is more talkative and has been keeping me amused during the day – he should be here too, shortly…”
She waited a moment to hear the unspoken question she knew he was bursting to ask, but he was silent. Taking pity on him, she decided to answer it for him, “My husband is no more. He died many years ago.”
“Oh – I am sorry…” he said in genuine contrition.
She spread her hands philosophically. “It is okay, it was a long while ago. And I suppose we were just two good people blundering along together…”
He looked sharply at her then and she went on, “Somehow, we didn’t really connect – otherwise, he would be with me now, don’t you think?”
He looked down at his feet, his hands on the railing behind him. “My wife and I divorced a good many years back…” He coughed again. “I never really wanted to try again after that.”
She nodded. “You were waiting, but nothing ever happened.”
He glanced up at her in surprise. “You understand?”
She smiled, then. “I waited all my life.”
Perhaps it was something in her voice, or maybe it was the way she tilted her head when she looked at him. Nevertheless, that was when the shock of realisation hit him. He kept staring at her speechlessly until she asked gently, “What kept you?”
This time her meaning was different, yet he understood her perfectly. He came forward eagerly then, and reaching down, took her hands in his.
“I don’t know, I’m not sure… Was it Fate?!”
Their eyes met fully for the first time. Such dark eyes, a lifetime of longing. And his smile – the sweetest thing she had ever seen.
Behind them, the ward was coming to life. She thought she could discern sounds of panic, some sort of a flurry.
“Shall we?” he asked, still holding her hands. She rose from the wheelchair, but then could not resist turning to look towards the rooms.
“Don’t,” he said, gently. “If you do, he will feel your pain and be haunted by it for the rest of his life.”
“How do you…?” she began, but he answered in anticipation, “My mother. I felt it for years afterwards…”
She wavered in indecision, saying wistfully, “If only they could know how peaceful it is, it would not hurt them so much…”
He nodded then, but said again, firmly, “He will be all right – they both will. You’ll see.”
Just a while back, she had been amused by his boyish jealousy. And now, he seemed so much wiser than she. Perhaps, age and time and space meant nothing hereafter?
A large white bird flew up and landed expertly on the balcony railing. As it gazed boldly at them, she suddenly remembered what she had read and felt a strange compulsion to reach out and touch it.
“Don’t! You could lose a finger…!” he cried out, and then they both laughed at the absurdity of it.
She reached out, and the cockatoo – that symbol of light, and change, and of the end of the tunnel – fluttered up and seemed to rest lightly for a moment on her outstretched arm. Then it took off, and as they watched, it flew upwards towards the trees and out of their sight.
“Shall we?” he asked again, and this time, she was sure. They smiled at each other, the sweetest smiles, and it was the most natural thing in the universe.
Revathi Ganeshsundaram finds the written word therapeutic and loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling in poetry. Her work has been published in Borderless Journal, Kitaab, Literary Yard, and Readomania
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL