Fiction: A Telegram From Madras

The telegram: Nilla dead. Hit by earthquake while travelling. Was happy. Did not die of heart-break. No need to reply.

It’s four in the morning and Doreen sits on the pot toying with a heavy envelope. She picks up a newspaper from the basket that has a stack grown from the past fortnight. She skims through the headlines absent-mindedly in sweet perturbation. Earthquake in Uttarakhand, back in India. The Bank of England declares that the worst of the current recession is yet to come. Exhibitions at Tate. Etcetera etcetera.

Daily, she goes to bed at 9:30 after her ritualistic glass of wine and before saying her prayers to the lord. She’d kiss her girls good night and papa Diego before hitting the sack. Freddie and she, they have a quick walk through the day and a kiss occasionally before shuffling to their ends of the bed. Rarely do they make out- once or twice a year (usually under the soporific influence of spirits). It’s a perfunctory practice-a pattern both of them have learned to accept and be comfortable in, over the years. Twenty summers and twenty one winters.

They got married young right out of college, in the early 70s at a Church in Chembur, Bombay. Freddie-Alfred-or Alfie to some, was a cousin to her best friend’s friend but they often hung out in the same circle.

Wasted afternoons and siestas, long nights by the sea creating music under the winking stars made for their summer breaks. She did a stint at the Oberoi while he taught music at the neighbouring church and their combined belief in religion turned their initial acquaintance into friendship. He was a motherless boy and hers showed him kindness in ways that he inexorably became family.

She was drawn to the sibyllic pull his singing had and a childlike magnetism that could turn strangers into friends. They called him kind. He had no enemies, no haters and his wit and humour was the life of their parties. She was much the same when it came to mingling with people except that she did it with an almost animalistic allure and grace and had more admirers than friends. He had asked her out and they began dating. Soon after, she remembers vividly, how it had taken a sheer single night of brooding before agreeing to marry him. She could not she see the sense in waiting, or herself being more happy with another man. And so they were hooked at twenty one.

A few years ago, insomnia caught in on her. And those pills- she has to give them up every now and then. So she has made it a habit of going to bed early in a conviction to coerce in more hours.

In any case, she wakes up punctually at around 1. Then begins her routinely almost religious spell of tossing and turning in silent turmoil. At around 3:30 she drifts noiselessly to the loo, careful to not wake Freddie up. Or to the sitting room sometimes, but not always, for papa Diego sleeps there. And their East London apartment is rather small. There comes her desultory bout of flicking restlessly through magazines and newspapers. At around 5 she takes a shower and leaves the house at 7 for work.

The envelope lay heavy in her laps. It was a telegram from Madras, India, sent by Jaivin. He is 15 years younger to her and they had only met once, briefly. She had received it last evening at the office but was instantly filled with misgivings. She couldn’t bring herself to throw it either, despite being miserable and nerve torn. She finally tore the envelope and read it’s content. It did not hit her with the acute sense of wreckage she thought it would. She did not cry and instead clumsily walked out nonplussed.

She fumbled and climbed into the bed. An urgency overtook her. She straddled Alfred and bit him hard under the collarbone. And squeezed his flesh, pulling him closer. He woke up with a start even as she brought a stale mouth hard, down onto his own.

He pulled away bemused; a tad disgusted even. And a sigh escaped his mouth on that autumn morning.

Such fitful flicks of passion was not them. To him, mild flutterings of resentment over this, from their earlier years were just that- flutterings and memories. Memories that shape shift often, that play more to whims of current cravings than being constant and true. You can not trust them entirely. So he was not even sure if there ever had been any resentment over their physical intimacy, or lack thereof. It had just fallen into routine somewhere; and they were content with their bickering and their loving, and their two daughters…He felt old besides. And secretly ugly. Undesirable.

So he was surprised when this happened. By her fervour. And by his revulsion. It was as if masks had come apart. Which were both carefully constructed and subconsciously put on. An irony for two, mutually exclusive. And how did they feel? Very wretchedly aware. Of grief and dread. Of fire and rain. Years of poise and propriety seemed to wither away in that instant.

Freddie looked into her bloodshot eyes and flinched. Come here, he wanted to say but words had abandoned him. His throat was parched and he did not know wether to comfort her or himself. He was oblivious to the rhythmic rap-tap-tap of the deluge shaping outside. The cold and the smell of rain seeped surreptitiously into the room. He found himself unable to move or meet her eyes. Doreen made no effort to move either.

He finally managed to croak out, “What’s the matter..?” She looked at him in a daze. Words, sights, sounds and sensation mixed in a mercurial phantasmagoria through her head.

The telegram: Nilla dead. Hit by earthquake while travelling. Was happy. Did not die of heart-break. No need to reply.

And their last exchange almost two years ago. July 24, 1989; Madras. The air is fraught with nerves and steel. Exhaustion, fury and helplessness.

Doreen: No, you tell me what would you have me do.

Nilla (a 25 year old woman with large eyes): I don’t know. Damn it.

Doreen (screaming for the first time): Do you want me to abandon my family? Is that what you want?

“No!…Does this matter to you Dodo?”

Doreen had fumbled for words and then- “…No. Stop writing to me. I won’t visit India. If I have to, you won’t know…You should be with someone closer to your age. A boy, perhaps…This was not meant to be.”

Doreen remembered Nilla’s cherubic face collapsing into agony and aversion. She saw her tremble with rage and saw a nasty look cross her eyes. But just as soon, her face had hardened up. Nilla had not bothered with goodbyes. She turned and left.

Freddie held her convulsing body with a sense of foreboding. His next words came out half choked and tired, “Are you seeing someone else ?”

“No! Oh no, Freddie. How could you?” she said between sobs. “I had a terrible dream. Saw mum…after all these years.”

He shuffled closer to her apologising and speaking gentle words. He held her tenderly. She kissed him gently on the nose and smiled reassuringly through desolate eyes. Both of them shut their lids. But their masks had been bared to each other, albeit briefly and they wondered if cracks would gleam out through the ones they had put back on. A tumultuous river rose in their chests then, and it was composed of broken hymns and it spun and swayed threateningly. Mockingly. And it’s waters were red, its currents benumbing.

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Epigraph:

There are names across the sea, only now I do believe

Sometimes, with the windows closed, she’ll sit and think of me

But she’ll mend his tattered clothes and they’ll kiss as if they know

A baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone

 

-Passing Afternoon, Iron and Wine.

That night, with its many wretched ironies

We beseeched the rains to cloak us

In an invisible sanctum of fiery deceit

from the disjunction of your double life

And like sudden moonlight caught

by a drifting leaf(lustreless), defying gravity

We revelled, succumbed to the city lights

-(a complimentary poem I wrote to the story)

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About the guest author

Abhay

Abhay is an illustrator/visual designer constantly looking to refine his craft and design more. He is an insatiable reader and an occasional-compulsive writer. His den is permanently infested with books, sketchbooks and more books that keep on adding incorrigibly.