stories

Family and friends

The heels sound different in the afternoon. Upon the road that looks like old skin, or the pattern that shows up when she closes her eyes in the night. The sound is not absorbed by anyone. The crowd eats noises until everything is blown-up-white screen. She does not like that.

So is she walking in the naked sun to hear the cluck of her heels? Yes and no.

He was hungry. He had to be fed.

She could have gone in the morning, however. They expect her to wake up in the morning. But afternoon is better. Not just because of absence of crowds but something else.

Oh don’t look at me—I’m not your omniscient narrator. I do not know everything. Sorry for giving out the mysterious-girl protagonist vibe. Well in any case, for you, I do know some things and I do know that she likes the sound of her heels in the afternoon sun. So she chooses the days and does it when she knows the power will go out (I would hire her as my secretary—that good of a planner). But she sees the pattern and it is not hard for her to guess that men in municipal divisions have light bulbs for lunch.

She walks near the pavement; it is elevated till her knees. A lot of shops have their shutters down, they remind her of Japanese fans. I never thought they can look like the Japanese fans. Grace got some imagination. And she is walking so much faster now. She climbs up upon the pavement—better watch out those heels—and enters a dark stairway. Time runs like a sideway canal in here. The stairs look like the stairs they may have for bad people to stay, when they die before their time. A limbo. Damp—not the good damp. A decay. An itch in the walls as if painted with the blood of blown-up yellow bulbs that no one bothers to replace on time. Or at all.

She walks out and inhales so sharp, the woman in the plastic chair raises her eyebrows. Her sister looks at her with an equal concentration.

‘They very well feel like under the sea.’

To the affect, she does cough repetitively and hold on to her waist. But here, the word we are looking for is ‘intrusion’. Both of us. Grace senses it and grows extremely awkward about it. Tries her forced smile with touching-teeth. Their reaction does not change. It is as if they can’t speak.

They sit in an open balcony, like the ones they have in villages where the floor can absorb running water. The door behind them is open but everything inside is really dark. There is no shade over their heads. They sit out in loose floral trousers and their heads just looked too heavy on their heads. There is a newspaper in one of the sister’s hand to wave off the houseflies. Both of their faces look…intruded. But Grace is not here for faces. She has someone to feed. So she does what she always does.

She picks up a scorpion from under their chair. Then a beetle. Geotrupidae. And at last, a grasshopper.

Oh was I giving out the mysterious-girl protagonist again? Well I’ll tell you what, Grace is absolutely disgusted. So much that she screams a little. Then to cover that scream, she jumps to her heels and pretends to loosen her shoes, which she can’t because her hands are full. So she just bends with her palms outstretched as if begging an apology.

‘They must be biting her feet’ one sister explains the other, nodding.

And while she is almost squatting on her knees, she looks under the chair once again and thinks to herself the following line:

There is a snake under the chair. Is it a fucking rabbit hat?

What a line to say to someone, if she could. But the sisters will just laugh. That is, if they can. But Grace is scared out of her wits and I’m disgusted too. I’m disgusted at her capability to hold a scorpion, a beetle and a grasshopper without crushing them to death. But she has a husband to feed. And so it is now her duty.

So she fidgets around with them and stares at the sisters. It is as if she has forgotten what to do with them. For a millisecond, there appears the usual doubt. ‘What the fuck Grace’. But then she remembers to smile. She smiles and asks one of the sisters to drag out the plastic seal-up bag from her purse. The one they usually sell home-made candies in.

It is blue in colour. Somehow they all look more repelling to her in a plastic bag. But there is always empathy in her. Like she would think, would they be getting any oxygen? They clearly aren’t. They are running inside the bag like a PacMan game. How can she put this in her purse? Carry her upon her shoulders? Walk the road? They are all going to die inside her purse very soon.

But she does. She lightly slaps the plastic bag so they settle down and traces her steps back to her home.

She has to cook the lunch and he likes them fresh.

*

The yellow hut-shaped bungalow on the rolling hill. The road wore it like a crown. It looked like a dollhouse. There were waving woods behind it and a misty smell. Towards it left, there was a cluster of blue-sheet slum. They clustered near the streetlight. They made the ground dark. Muddy. As if the woman in the slum who sweeps at people’s houses, carries all their dust into her make-shift home. She has a broken hand but it is plastered. And if you go close, there are sketchpen marks on it.

Grace walks out of the front door but you never see her, it is as if she came from some curving corner. Popping right up on the road. She has a lot of work to do today but her memory and mind makes everything a traffic-accident wreck. Two cars—one way, and causalities. Sometimes more.

She walks near the streetlight into the opposite end, carrying an arm-length stuffed doll. You know the drill. Blonde woollen hair and polka dot skirt. But then she looks at the women with her broken arm and her little girl. She walks over to her and tries to talk to her, not sure if she is old enough to talk. But she surely can because she had sketched a

‘Help

Others.’

With a poorly shaped star, on her mother’s hand. The woman is wearing a green saree and a golden nose ring.

‘Do you go to school?’

The little girl does not say anything and Grace looks at her own hand in amazement, finding in them, the doll that she was carrying without a purpose. She hands over the doll to the girl as if finally, pushing in the last piece of the puzzle. Oh it makes sense, doesn’t it now forgetful Grace?

‘My mother’s sister told me to.’

Grace doesn’t understand a thing the child says. Her mother sways her in her arms and tells Grace that she is young and she only says what she feels like.

It is absurd to Grace. The child. The woman. The woman and the child. The relationship. The little girl cries now. Grace just smiles awkwardly. The woman sways her child some more, she has an indifferent air. She couldn’t care less about Grace. But she stands, airing the child. And Grace cannot understand it. The woman and the little girl. Poor forgetful Grace.

It is absurd, even more when Grace’s son climbs up the street to find her near the streetlight. He looks at her and laughs a theatrical laugh with flared nostrils. It is bizarrely loud. There is rage in his laughter. Bursting out of his forehead, out heavy on the shoulder of his friend where he had collapsed laughing. Grace smiles at him but does not know how to approach him anymore. But then there is her daughter. Like a placard, she appears too. Her face drips with the need. Her mouth stays open as if air could never reach inside it without doing that. But the look on her face is not surprise, it is need. She squats near the old beggar passing right by her mother as if she is no one. A subtle wind that passes by the hilltop, maybe. She is that. But Grace’s daughter barely remembers the color of the house she walks in every day, and here I am romanticising her in the wind. 

There is so much forgetfulness everywhere.

They make conversation. The beggar and the daughter. The old man’s voice is heavy with the sudden knowledge of how trade still dances upon his hand. She needs. She needs. He makes. He gives.

There are incredulous lines on the Grace’s forehead. She smiles some more. There is no one behind her eyes.

 

 

 

 

Camouflage

Yoshitoshi Kanemaki’s Sculptures

Asphyxiation. The town is clean as a chalk. It is the men, the rodents of the empire that roam around on their regal horses in an anachronism, something that just makes my breath itch. Tyrants, however jewelled up, are tyrants. They retard everything in the vicinity. We have some sleeping hut houses here. All their colours faded into a metallic uniformity. But truth be told, we were always dreaming here—that’s how they got us. This was one of those parts of the world where people go to escape their identities. Fucking wishful thinking and a load of crap, that’s what I say.

The blue men on the horses are out on patrol. It feels like they are walking on my neck. My steps pick up their pace even though my age no longer allows it. The curving street seems to shield me. From here the slope rises up. I am near the stairway now—it is a hill covered in stairs. I hold onto the roaring gales when my back breaks. They howl above the town where the silence is no more ringing. But I don’t bother about it. I feel like I can finally breathe. Down in the colony, they had roped up the sun too it seems. It balms my face here at the twirling angle of the stairhill. Probably a bad idea to stick out like a sore thumb. If I can see them, they can see me too. But I think I see some of our own now. No, there is nothing to think, I can see the very lines on their faces. I know for a fact they are our own as if their horses were trotting in a different rhythm. Our kitchen song.

But I do not understand it. If they had to confront the blue men after all, why are they dressed like them? Well if they fucking wanted to intimidate them with all the horses, they still look like they’ve pissed their pants. Two of them stand facing the curving street. They are hiding their faces, but from where I stand, I can see them. One man takes courage and trots to the centre. Him against five blue men who stand in the shade—their horses rocking gently, shifting their weight from one leg to another.

‘Do you have the medicine?’

‘Sir, we would request you to step down from your horse.’

Without losing a moment, the leader of this gang swirls his horse around and run to his waiting men. One of them is a teenage boy. He is crying, but cursing. They all run as blues prepare a chase. Just as they do, the copper haired man on the pastel brown, whistles his officers back. He knows it is a stage. The ship is a set. The waves are made up of third market mist fans. Turbulence. Rebellion. Drama. He wipes his brow and move out of his shade into the impotent sun.

He waits. He whistles.

Footsteps. The teenager from before. He must’ve run all the way back from wherever his friends were hiding. He is no longer wearing the regal blue. An oversized pastel brown T-shirt. Tousled mud like hair. Wind-eaten. The face same as before—crying-cursing. The copper haired man steps down from his horse and goes up-close to study his face. He has to slightly tilt his head to reach the boy’s height. There is a mocking in his manner. He is testing the meat before putting it up on the pan. The teen stretches his left arm out, his jaws locked in submission to the incoming pain.

‘Willy, bring me my kit’, the blue chief has his nostrils all flared up.

Will trots off to the left. Despite the elevation, I can’t see him no more. He is back in minutes though.

‘Thank you Will’, the blue chief exhales like he could finally breathe.

I despise hospitals. But yet I’m familiar with how the doctors go about their routine. Will they be doctors if they are stripped away from their coats and hand-sanitizer odour? I mean it would freak me out to be cut open in a random tailor’s shop. It was indeed a scareshop. The crossroads they all stood must have folded like a cup and all I could see was that man trying to find the right vein to push his injections into the boy. The boy’s lip quivered and before you are pausing for breath, this fucking devil is putting in another one.

‘What colour do you like boy? I have chocolate.’

The third one now. Three injections dripping into the boy’s arm, taped with a black ribbon tape—the ones that athletes used to wear to rebel some wrong.

Seconds trickle like blood. I become the boy. I am as frozen as him. But my jaws are still locked. He is sobbing. It should be over now. But the man has a last trick up his sleeve.

Some kind of screw driver is the only way to describe it. A drilling machine for human flesh. But the boy has stopped sobbing. Perhaps, he is relieved that there will be nothing harsher than this. Certainty is good. Or is it?

Revolution is no fun.

*

She squats on her legs and plays with her hairclip. She is smiling. He had placed a small box on her head and left. The box had this hairclip. 24 carat gold.

The sky is dead as usual and an eagle circles it. Behind her is the open-gapped fence they put outside garbage pits. She plays around with her hair for a moment, daydreaming. Makes two pigtails out of them and roll both of them in a bun, tying them around with the golden hairclip. Gold hairclip.

But there is no time to fix your hair, wash your face or even sleep, these long-long days. They don’t need calendars in this part of the world. Everyday, people like her remember everyday. No time for amnesia or numbness. Short term quickness. On your toes. Cat like—wild-cat like. Sometimes you hunt, sometimes you get hunted.

Or just sleep and die—it’s not that bad, some days she would think. That’s what people used to do here. Sleep and die.

Not today though. Thursday. You have to keep things in motion. 11:45. She was never late. 19th Block. The building that looked like muck. She learnt some maps. Blonde haired man. As if all the rain fell on only one spot in the town. 11th floor. Why did she choose the stairs? Black Jacket.

Black Jacket. That’s what they called him. She was going to meet him for the first time. For some reason she put her clip back in her pocket and let her pigtails fall.

‘Black Jacket?’

It really felt absurd when she said it. The girl with the pigtails talking in secret code names. But he just opened the door and stared at her. His apartment looked handsome from what she could see. But she couldn’t see it for long. There was some sort of hunger in his eyes. His teeth were sharp, she knew and he didn’t even smile. But she knew. And she had a job. She had to go through this.

‘Not now.’

He closed the door.

There was ruckus outside the lobby window. The sounds from the road came up as if travelling through tunnel. It felt like listening through a wall, she thought. It was a woman. She was wailing. They had killed her son. Overdose. There had been more than 40 cases of this and they call themselves civilized—the blues? “Vessels for medicines”. How cruelty breaks in some men’s bones, she had no idea.

Black Jacket must be tackling this. When this happens, they personally come to meet the relatives. Often the relatives get violent. The result is predictable.

This is what was going to happen now. The boy had two siblings. Teens. But in times like these, you become a soldier pretty early on. Things were in motion. But unplanned. Unplanned was never good. That is why they had people like Black Jacket, people to govern the outbreaks. Though whatever he was doing wasn’t going to prevent the immediate massacre that could happen. She had to be quick. Cat-like.

She used elevator this time.

The power went out.

*

‘Threy Oceane?’

‘Black Jacket. Yes?’

‘There was bloodshed. That lady. She lived in your building. Thursday? Did you see a girl? Dark hair. Brown coat. Golden clip?’

‘Oh YES. I had fever that day. But of course we can’t have the luxury of that. I did negotiate and saved what I could. But I told her to reschedule. This was before Marcel Red come trotting by.’

‘I see. Sorry for taking your time. I mean I’ve heard a lot about your work…man. You have saved so many lives. I better leave now.’

Black Jacket walks back to his house.

‘Oh and use the elevator.’

He smiles. He does have sharp teeth.

*