‘It would not be the stench of decayed flesh and withering bones, scattered around with chunks of twisted metal and molten glass fused with burning soil. If the apocalyptical tales were ever realized, we would most certainly learn that the authors had erred’.
‘There would be no unearthly presence. There would be no rising to the heavens. There most certainly shall be no pit of a lifeless planet. On the contrary, all that there would be, would be life. Life that we unanimously shriek at the sight of in this home’, he thought, pulling off the heavy leather sandal.
Gently placing its toe on the cold stone floor, he held his breath and waited. Mapping every small move of the enemy, he held fort. Then just as those speedy legs began to race towards the cabinet, in one resounding flick of the wrist, he launched it into orbit. With a smack, its back crashed against the bricks beneath the grills. For a moment, he pitied the little creature. That was until it arched, and snarled – or so it seemed to him – and made away through the iron bars down the scaffolding.
Ria walked in with the glass half full in her hand, and the other half of the wine swishing in her mouth. Dust particles swirled violently in the dim orange light. Those that had surrendered and crashed to the floor had been dispersed into odd prints of naked soles and withered footwear.
Sheets of bubble-wrap lay twisted over ripped cartoons in one corner. A few feet away, in the shadow of their towering new teakwood cabinet, Sarthak sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by stacks of books. His eyes narrowed and gaze sharpened, firmly fixed at the balcony. In his right hand, he held a dusty hardback; and in his left, was clutched his sandal. The weapon of his choice.
‘Yes indeed. This is what apocalypse would be like. There would be life, dust and stories. That would be all that would remain’, Sarthak contemplated, slipping his toes back into the comfort of the sandal. He knew he had to keep looking over his shoulder to make sure that the pest didn’t return. But for now, he could continue indulging himself. ‘Stories of what once was; stories of what would again be; stories that carry messages from the past for the future. It would all merely depend on’, he postulated – smiling and accepting the cup of hot cocoa from Ria – ‘where and how we choose to begin living again’.
Ria sat by the edge of the bed, folding one leg over another. Her honey-glazed hair tossed over her right shoulder. The tip of her tongue danced over her lips, as she took in another sip. Picking one of the books from the stacks closest to her, she turned to the first page.
“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The End of the Affair – Graham Greene.
She ran her fingers across the words. A rush of joy came over her. This, she knew, was the perfect moment to begin their story.
Rising to a kneel, Sarthak began to push aside the piles that he had put together. After a long discussion the night before, they’d decided that it was time for them to bring their collections together. Last night, they’d hosted a few friends for dinner. It was a pleasant affair with polite chatter and harmless innuendos – the kind that new couples tend to encounter around the more experienced ones. However, things took an uneasy turn when it was learned that the two had yet not managed to combine their book collections. A few scruffy coughs and lengthy sips of water later, the tension eased when Laila revealed that she’d learned in the papers of a grand sale at the Furniture Mart. “Cabinets!” she’d exclaimed. “You could get one of those charming rosewood cabinets! It’s just serendipity that there’s a sale on.”
And so went the night. A night of hard negotiation. A night of careful deliberation. A night of identifying and defining their spaces. A night of disagreement. A night to unite. A night to come to terms with what it meant to be one. A night where he said and she heard; a night when she spoke and he listened. A night that ended with an abrupt tolling of the bell. And was followed by early morning shopping for the perfect cabinet.
The first lot before him were the classics. He didn’t really know why they were called so. He’d read a few of them. They were pleasant, but rather stiff. He’d often compared them to pretentious hosts, who would invite you, but only so that they could indulge their new chinaware. It was a cold display of their opulence, uncaring for the guests’ tastes. Ria, on the other hand, would constantly urge him to stay with them a while. They, to her, were sedimented emotions. In each page, there was a layer that would unfold, and in time, you would reach the warm, vulnerable core of humanity.
‘Mumbo-jumbo’ he thought, with a crooked grin. Placing the cup on the floor, he picked up the book on top of the pile. Unbeknown to her, he’d decided that he would quietly slip the classics into the back of the cabinet and stack the front with his thrillers, lead by the Indiana Jones set front and centre. With stealth, he watched her from the corner of his eyes. Engrossed in an old hardback, she sat upon the bed. Her almond-shaped eyes twinkling in the dim light. A soft smile curling her glistening lips. Walking towards the cabinet, he took the book and placed it in one corner, before turning back and glancing at her again. Ria remained oblivious. He turned back and removed the book. Turning the pages, he read to himself.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez.
He pulled it out. Placed it on top of the classics stack, and pushed it aside. Thrillers were a dime a dozen.
The grated cheese bubbled at first, dripping down as rain from steely clouds. Within seconds, it melted, softening the bright red color of the marinara to a more soothing shade. By the time, Sarthak’s fork bit into dish, however, it had stiffened as a mass atop the penne. It would have been much worse, if he’d waited longer. The ironing was done. The dishes were dried. The trash had been neatly packed and taken out. And a long, hot shower later, as he heard the click of the bathroom door unlock, he began to gobble down dinner.
Ria emerged draped in a violet towel with pale yellow flowers printed on it. Her hair was wrapped up in another. He smiled with guilt, shrugging his shoulders. Picking up a fork-full, he let out an exaggerated moan as though it were a sentence – a statement of his appreciation for the wonderful meal he had been given. She stood there with folded hands. She knew the game. In mere seconds, the plate was empty. He pretended to sneak by her towards the kitchen, only to be stopped dead in his tracks. The plate recovered, she glanced towards the few books still on the floor. Dismayed.
It was 1 am when the last of the books made its way into the cabinet. Sarthak gathered the empty cartoons into one large mass. Folding them in the bubble warp, he made his way to the storeroom. A fresh wave of dust began to fill the space as he walked out. It was far too late and she was far too exhausted to pull out the mop. The broom would have to do for now. But even then, she’d have to gather the mounds of dirt and then pour it into a bag before leaving it out with the trash. She sighed at the thought. Then turning to the balcony, she decided that it would have to do for now. ‘Short, quick strokes. Short and quick’, she repeated to herself, wondering why sweeping was not an Olympic sport when curling was one. Collecting it all in one corner of the balcony, she rested the broom against the wall and retreated satisfied.
As she clasped the doors shut, she felt a tingle by her toes. She chuckled, and looked. He stared back, as though mocking her, and then ran along the wall. She shrieked and fell back. Racing through, she ran straight into her returning husband, who was carrying a book that had been lost in the folds of the packaging. With a thud they fell to the floor, as the harrowed intruder made its way into a crack in one corner of the wall.
Sarthak ran his hands across her pale cheek. She pointed to the corner. It was empty. Chalk white and empty. He held her tight, and implored her to open her eyes. As she did, they scanned the room. There wasn’t a sight of the creature. All that was on the floor was them, and a book fallen open to the first page.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Tracks – Louise Erdrich.
She lay her head upon his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heart. His hands caressed her hair. There was no room for any intrusion anymore.
It was eight in the morning. Ria heard the sounds of the sparrows, singing their daily song. The fruit vendor dragged his cart across dew-drenched streets, declaring the virtues of his fair. Sleepy children held their mothers’ hands, walking to the bus stop. That was until they encountered their friends and burst into a cackle.
She gently lifted Sarthak’s arm that lay wrapped around her waist. Resting it on the side, she kissed his bare shoulder. The musky scent of perspiration made her smile. She raised the pillow along the headboard, and rested her back against it. Running her fingers through his hair, she watched him sleep. He looked calm; fulfilled – just as she felt.
Turning to the bedside table, she picked up his watch. It was nearly half past eight. Soon the bell would toll and daily routines would overwhelm them. She put the watch down and gathered the sheets around her. Folding herself in them, she got off the bed and walked towards the cabinet. Her back felt stiff and her thighs sore. A faint sigh escaped her lips, as she noticed that the classics were placed on the top shelf, clearly displayed first and foremost. She stood there admiring the sturdy frame peppered with panels of thick glass, frosted at the sides. It was ideal. It had a certain old world charm to it. The way things should be – sturdy and orderly, yet allowing for one to peek and out, a breathing space of sorts.
In the glass, she could see herself. Her hair messy and sweaty. Her curvy frame sheathed in velvet. She leaned in to get a better look at her neck. Down where it met the clavicle, there was a deep red mark. She knew that it would soon turn blue, and he’d be quite distraught knowing that it had been so. She ran her fingers upon it, aching with pleasure. Her fingers then made their way up to her right ear. It was still smarting. He’d loved tickling it with his tongue, and she’d enjoyed every moment of it.
Turning towards the bed, she chuckled at the thought of letting him dwell on how he’d caused her such pain. Then she noticed that she’d taken all the sheets with herself. He was lying face down, buck naked, oblivious to the world. His back was lined with scratches. They weren’t too deep, but deep enough for the blood to have rushed to the surface. She smiled, recollecting every one of them. The soft ones and then those where her nails had dug deep into his skin. She smiled, at the thought, mapping his body. He had strong legs, and she loved when they were entwined with hers. She looked at them and laughed, remembering how she’d ribbed him for having hairy legs. So much so, that he’d finally made it a habit of shaving them.
Sarthak awoke to find Ria leaning back in bed with a book in her hands. Her hair was washed and tied. He moaned, taking the sheet that covered him and pulling it over her feet. He then threw his arm around her, inviting her to join him. She smiled, putting on her spectacles and reading aloud.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The Hobbit – J.R.R Tolkien