“Have a nice weekend, Ram” said Barbara.
“Have a nice weekend too Barbara”
Ramanathan muttered too late, for the typist’s footsteps had already faded out of the doorway.
The office was almost empty, Barbara’s typewriter was alone in the corner, and so was he.
He couldn’t remember when he started this habit of working after five. It seemed a long time, but in fact it was not. Time was when he would be ready to go even before Barbara had started making herself up, especially on Fridays, when already at four o’clock he’d start getting restless. He would finish his work in a hurry, grab his jacket and he’d dash out of the door with a brisk “ See you on Monday Barbara”. He was always in a hurry then.
He was an excited and happy young man then. Rachel, the Irish beauty! She would be waiting for him at the corner of the street. How beautiful she was! Elegant, with a king of innocence, but excitingly sexy. He had thought that she was quintessentially Irish.
She was his first girlfriend, and was to remain the only one. He was brought up to believe that the woman closest to any man ought to be either his mother or his wife. When he had met her he hadn’t even known how to fall in love, he was innocent, he was young, it just happened; she has changed all that, but she would never succeed in changing him beyond a certain point.
When he finally walked to the car, the memories of Rachel gave him a pain like an open wound in his heart.
“Rachel!” he muttered to himself as he noticed how clean the car was. He used to keep it spotless for her. Now its emptiness and bareness reminded him of the emptiness of his heart. Her mother was a nurse and Rachel used to tease him about young men who didn’t know basic hygiene. She would struggle up to him and he would lean towards her for a kiss.
The car behind him sounded its horn angrily, abruptly putting an end to his reverie and bringing him back to the real world. At least for a while. How strangely people behaved when they were in love! There were times when he would go to his home with her lipstick marks, which made the others snigger knowingly.
Ram wet his lips, but yesterday’s sweets to not linger in the mouth, only the memories do.
The car stopped at the traffic lights, he could see the office of the computer firm where she used to work. He wondered where she was now.
When he had said that he was going to Sri Lanka, she had said nothing for a minute or two, and then she had casually said that she would probably move out of London too. But she had never indicated whether it had anything to do with his going away.
Where could she be now? Would she be kissing someone else? Telling some other chap that she loved him? The pain so sharp to think about her. The car behind horned loudly again.
He shrugged, why should he care? For some reason nothing much disturbed him these days. He was in a dream world, alone with his memories, some happy, some sad.
As he passed Rachel’s office someone waved, maybe one of Rachel’s friends. He could have stopped and asked about Rachel. He remembered the question she had asked him, “Will you be getting a big dowry from the girl’s father?” He couldn’t decide whether this was meant as a joke or not, and he found that this made him step on the accelerator quite inappropriately.
The smell of chicken curry welcomed him the moment he pushed open the door of the house. He could see Shanti in the kitchen, grinding something in the liquidiser. He kissed her neck softly, but she wouldn’t even turn around.
“You always behave like a little boy,” she said tesingly. They had only been married for two months now and she had only recently come to London. She is rather shy he thought, a bit dull too, but hopefully she would change when she got used to being married to him.
“Will you help me with some onions,” she asked, still grinding, not looking at him. It seemed that the only conversation they shared was based on her cooking.
“Why do you have to make so many dishes, why can’t you make something simple?” He knew that he sounded irritated, although he didn’t mean to be, but he hated to see her in the kitchen every time he came home, more a cook than a wife.
“Please be quiet if you want to help.” Her tone was sharp and definite. He couldn’t think of anything to say after that. They seemed like a pair of strangers in the house.
“ You think you are the only one who works? If I had known what it was going to be like in London, I’d not have married you!” She never hesitated over words. She directed her words as though she owned them. She was from a comfortable family with servants, and had come with a rather substantial dowry. Did he expect his wife to be another Rachel?
“Oh, darling,” Rachel used to say, “Don’t bother cooking if you’re tired, I hate to cook if I’m tired especially on Friday’s.” She would then make sandwiched and they would lie on the settee side by side, watching TV or listening to their favourite music.
No, Rachel would never ask him to peel onions!
Shanti was still in the kitchen, still cooking. He glanced at her, was he meant to spend the rest of his life with her? She was different from his expectations. He was open, happy, friendly, outgoing – she wouldn’t even spend money on decent clothes, the sort of clothes one would expect and engineer’s wife to wear! But she would have none of it.
“We can’t spend money like that,” she would say, “if we have a daughter, we need all the money we can save if she’s to get herself a decent man.”
Rachel never wore the cheap sort of clothes she wore, and she was only a secretary. Yes, she knew how to be modern and elegant. Oh, how beautiful and clever she was! How much in love with him! How he had loved her too!
The Six O’clock News on TV. They exchanged not a single word. She served food and they ate in silence. It started raining outside, the drops falling rhythmically. “What a country,” she mumbled, “always raining.” He said nothing.
“ I hear that last summer was very hot,” she said in a muffled voice because of the food in her mouth. He did not respond.
Last summer! Oh yes, how well he remembered last summer with his Rachel! “How lovely she was to be with” he said to himself. They had been together all weekend. There she was, her body creamed to stop sunburn, her skin shining in the hot sun. He had let his hand wander all over her silky body.
“I want to make love,” he had said, looking deeply into her eyes. She had turned towards him and looked at him lovingly. They were on the beach, she smiled and he was in a hurry to go home and make love.
“I wish we could stay like this forever,” she said pulling his face towards her, she had kissed him passionately. He knew what she meant.
She had accepted that he had to go back to Sri Lanka. His mother had urged him to come back home urgently.
He knew his fellow countrymen had obliged her with details of his affair with the Irish girl. The tone of her letter was unmistakable. He had held Rachel tight and he had the devil of a job not bursting into tears. Kissed her passionately. Neither of them knew that.
“I hear there is no rain in Sri Lanka,” he heard Shanti say, almost like a dream. He refused to be brought back to reality. Rachel kissed him again.
“I have to go home,” he told Rachel.
“And get married!” she said without emotion.
“I am sorry Rachel. I don’t want to hurt my mother. I am sorry.”
“Sorry about what?” She drew him closer again and they kissed.
“ I never expected you to marry me, Ram.” she added calmly. He had been angry then, he felt humiliated. She should cry, shout at him, make a scene. She didn’t even seem sad.
“Do you at least know the girl?” she asked.
“No, but I’ll hope to get to know her.” He had replied rather foolishly.
“ I hope you will get to know her enough to please you, Ram.” She had said with an enigmatic smile. Suddenly that smile hurt him. She kissed him but he felt nothing.
“What is the matter with you,” Shanti was saying,
“are you dreaming?” She sounded angry. He looked at her. Must forget the past, he said to himself. He really must make the effort to get to know her. She caught him staring at her.
“What’s the matter now?” his wife asked
“Come, sit next to me,” he said on a sudden impulse.
“Go away, can’t you see I have all this ironing to do? You remember we’re going to visit my brother tomorrow. I don’t want his wife to say bad things about me.” Would she ever fit his image of what his wife ought to be like?
The Nine O’clock News. “Come to bed now,” she said, walking away, “we have to get up early tomorrow.”
The woman in the film reminded him of Rachel. Rachel! He closed his eyes, the memories were still there, loving exciting. He wants his Rachel but he can’t have her.
He turned the TV off.
The rain drops hitting the window blended with sweet memories of the past. He went upstairs. Shanti was fast asleep. She was like a bundle of blankets on that bed. As he got into bed, she opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I really should help you sometimes.” He said, thinking of his refusal to peel the onions.
She seemed not to understand and he smiled to himself.
“Shanti, we’ve scarcely been married for two months, shouldn’t we be happy?”
He lifted the bundle of blankets of her.
Her firm nipple made him excited.
He could feel himself getting harder.
He held her tight.
Yes, he must forget Rachel.
She turned away from him.
“What’s the matter?” he whispered.
“Well I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh yes, tell me”, he pressed her.
“I’ve been thinking we must buy some cheap vegetables tomorrow, some sais that there is a cheap vegetable shop near my brothers house.”
He could feel his body suddenly grow limp and cold. She carried on talking about onion and okra, green chillies and mangoes, but he had stopped listening.
He wanted to scream. A scream for having allowed him to be sold likes this.
For sold him self for a large dowry!