That day he saw her in Cafe Mondegar.
He’d thought he’d seen her a lot of times before, in a lot of places. Sometimes she was half-glimpsed in the crowd near Victoria Terminus, walking down to the basement crossing where the flybatters crackled and the heat and humidity were so intense it was like a blanket thrown over the air. Sometimes he had caught sight of her in the crowd, about to board a train, or in the back seat of a black and yellow Padmini taxi trundling by. Once he’d been quite positive he’d seen her, in the late dusk of evening, entering Khyber restaurant, and imagined her among its faux-Afghan decor. But it was always only the merest glimpse, and when it was over he wasn’t sure he’d seen her at all.
This time though there was surely no doubt. He paused on the pavement, unwilling to turn his head to look, watching from the corner of his eye. It was only the morning, and the cafe was fairly deserted, so she was easy to see, sitting hunched over a little across from a man. He couldn’t really see the man, and in any case he didn’t matter. He stood where he was, watching her.
She was just as he remembered, the times he’d almost seen her and the times before. He could see her face, the hair curling a little where it fell on her shoulders, and he knew that she’d be looking up at the man from under her brows, smiling and replying in her little-girl voice. He’d loved to tease her about that voice, saying her schoolgirl daughter sounded more mature than her. He stood and watched, and felt the voice in his ear, as it had been so often, once.
The crowd flowed past him. Nobody took any notice, nobody buffeted him, and if they had he’d probably not have been aware of it anyway. He watched her until his eyes began to blur and he wasn’t quite clear what he was seeing any longer. Then she got up and left the cafe with the man, and though she passed right by him she didn’t see him and he made no attempt to talk to her.
He followed her up the street, towards the stall-lined stretch of the Causeway. They walked past Leopold Cafe, in which grinning foreign tourists sat sipping from green bottles of beer where terrorist grenades had exploded only a few years before. He had never been inside Leopold, and suddenly he wished they’d visited it, at least once.
At night the Causeway was a stretch of jewelled lights and wonder, its stalls crowded with minerals and telescopes, perfumes and incense, clothes and books and all manner of things imaginable. At night one could lose oneself for hours in the Causeway, if one had a mind to. But in the harsh hot morning light it was merely tawdry and commercial, and the vendors gestured and cajoled everyone who passed to buy, buy, buy. But they did not stop him, as he drifted behind her, carried along as by a tide.
They’d sat on the wall above the sea on Marine Drive as the tide came in, the night dark and warm and seductive. She’d been lying with her head on his lap, and he’d been telling her stories. The stories he had been telling were silly, and he’d stopped frequently to make up the next bit, and after some time he’d realised she’d fallen asleep on his lap. He’d sat there stroking her head and watching the reflected light on the water, and listening to the squealing of kids playing on the pavement while their parents basked in the night. But that was then.
They stopped once, to read the menu outside an ice cream shop. He’d eaten ice cream once with her, at this very shop. It hadn’t been very good ice cream. She’d preferred Natural, but there was no Natural shop on Causeway. There was one on Marine Drive, and they’d sat there and eaten cone after cone. All kinds of flavours, pineapple and custard apple and mango and the rest of them.
He wondered where they were going. Perhaps they’d go watch a movie. He didn’t know. She might call a cab any minute, and then they might go anywhere. Suddenly, he was filled with terror that if he lost sight of her, even for a moment, he wouldn’t be able to find her again. Picking up his pace, he closed the distance between them, as fast as he could.
The crowd flowed past like water. He could only see her up ahead, nothing else. Her sandals, slapping on the pavement – she’d broken the straps so frequently it had become a running joke with them. The silver glint of anklets on her feet. Her salwar, orange and white, the brown leather handbag slung over her shoulder. Everything else blurred out except that. He began to run, slipped effortlessly between a fat white man haggling with a thin stall owner over a T shirt, passed her and turned, his arms raised.
She didn’t see him.
She didn’t even notice his existence. Her eyes were turned to the man at her side, her hand wrapped round his forearm, a look of wonder on her face. He followed the line of her gaze, and, at last, saw the man’s familiar face.
He opens his eyes and rubs at the tears. They come at night these days, when he’s alone and no longer has to keep them under control. And they come when he closes his eyes, roiling his dreams and soaking his pillow.
He raises his head and tries to make out the time. It’s still a long way to dawn. He tries to move his arms and legs, but they don’t obey his orders any longer. He lies back, dreading what dreams may come, and closes his eyes again.
And then he’s sitting opposite her in Cafe Mondegar, talking about the Mario Miranda cartoons on the walls, while she caresses his hand with her fingertips, and looks up at him from under her brows, smiling.
For an instant he thinks he sees someone who looks terribly familiar, standing outside the door and watching her, watching them, together, and he has a sense of immense sadness and yearning. But when he looks again, there is nobody there.
It must have been a trick of the light, he thinks, and turns to her again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014