“Time to indulge in a hot cup of chamomile tea,” Simona whisked through the shelf and settled for a beautiful bone china teacup and saucer set with old country roses pattern that made tea drinking so special.
“Royal Albert.” Al was taken by surprise the first day she pulled it out of the crockery cabinet.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“The tea set. It was May’s favourite set. We had got it from London many years ago. These are special cups,” he explained the rich artistry of the handcrafted crockery, its proud heritage of over a century.
She was fascinated and slowly put the cup back in its place.
“Hey, why did you put it back? Just use it,” he shook his head.
“No, I didn’t realise it’s that expensive. I am sure it was kept for some special occasion,” she argued.
“What special occasion? I am glad you took it out. We haven’t used the fancy crockery after May fell sick and stopped entertaining.” He sighed. “No point in hoarding all this till it becomes junk.”
“What if it breaks?” she was reluctant.
“I insist,” he smiled at her.
Since then she made it a point to wash the cup and saucer after drinking her cup of tea. She was addicted to coffee, and she wouldn’t compromise her morning and evening mug-full. Even Ella had failed to introduce her to a cup of good tea, but with Al, she developed a taste for finer things of life. She enjoyed her cup of tea in the evenings while she edited his work.
She danced her way to his kitchen, made a cup of tea for herself and put together a sandwich for Al. He seemed lost in his thoughts as he stared out of the window. She placed a large mug of tea in front of him, pulled out a drinking straw from the packet by the table and glancing at him did something silly.
She raised her eyebrows, smoked at the straw pretending it was a long cigarette holder as she blew imaginary circles of smoke in the air, fluttered her eyelashes and pointed at Audrey Hepburn’s iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster behind her. Al burst out laughing and complimented her as a natural. She had never done something like this before for anyone, but with Al, she would come up with all sorts of pranks. He brought out the best in her.
Once she had accompanied Ella to the kids’ gift store and bought a sipping glass for Al, a colourful plastic glass with Mickey and Minnie printed on it, and a bright yellow cover with a small sipper was perfect for him when his hands shook too much. Ella found her behaviour obsessive but at the same time saw how happy her friend was. He moulded, comforted, pampered and believed in her. Most importantly, he taught her to believe in herself.
“Al, would you sublet your flat to me? You do not use the other two bedrooms. I will save money, and you could make some,” she sounded business-like.
“You want to move in with me? Thirty years back, I would have said, no problem.” He let out a laugh.
“Oh, come on. I am serious,” she folded her hands and peered at him.
“It will make more sense if you took care of your old parents. Why me? Let’s not push the boundaries.” He spoke in a clipped voice.
She was unprepared for his sharp words. She opened her mouth but didn’t know quite what to say. She got up and walked to the window bracing herself.
After a few long minutes of awkward silence, he finally spoke, “Aren’t you getting late? You have work to do, I am sure.”
“Of course, I do.” She walked up to the big leather couch and picked up her laptop bag to leave. Al got busy looking for some papers, and as he fumbled on the table top, he dropped pens, coasters and sheets of paper on the ground.
Instinctively she turned around and glared at him, “What the hell is wrong with you? The other day you fell in the bathroom and hurt yourself. If someone is around, it will help you. I am not proposing that I become your nurse. We can manage things better that way.”
“I beg your pardon,” he was taken by surprise.
“Nothing. Just forget it,” Simona turned to go but walked back and faced him squarely, “I know you are too proud to ask for help. Your stiff upper lipped Brit thing.”
“What’s stiff upper lipped Brit thing? Choose your words carefully, young lady,” he said softly.
“This is the problem. You guys have a history of those painfully boring elaborate tea-time conversations like those Jane Austin novels. Have a cuppa tea, isn’t it the way you say it?” she mimicked. “Either that or sleeping around with whoever you like. That’s the western way I know. Back home in India, we were warned about what goraas (white people) do. The problem is you cannot fathom a relationship which is neither a dry piece of drawing-room conversation nor a steamy bedroom scene.”
“I don’t believe you said that. After all this while…,” Al looked at her in disbelief.
“Yes. You have taken over my life. Can’t you see that? I don’t meet my friends or go anywhere. Ramu’s world is mine now, and your words are building my vocabulary. The paintings on your wall are visual memories for me. You want to take away all that just because I said I want to share your apartment. Aren’t you a sick man?” she gasped for breath.
“An ill man,” he nodded softly.
“What?” she looked at him and threw her hands in the air, “ok, ill man. But you are still sick.”
“If you have finished with your mad banter, can I say something?” he looked at her.
“What?” she frowned at him as she picked up all the stuff lying on the ground and started putting them back in place.
“Let me start by saying that you are a very rude person. Finishing school would do you good. The important thing is there are rules of the land, and we need to abide by them. In this part of the world, a woman cannot be sharing accommodation with a man no matter how honourable the intentions are. Now get yourself a glass of water and calm down.” In spite of his severe shaking, his eyes were steady, and she sat down quietly.
“I wanted to help, Al. I just wanted to be around.” She burst into tears.
“I know, my dear,” he spoke slowly. He heaved out a breath and said, “On this note, let’s listen to Elvis.”
She blew her nose and switched on the stereo. You are always on my mind, Elvis’s voice echoed in her heart. She washed her face and looked at her swollen eyes in the mirror. What could she do to help? Al was always on her mind.
She walked up to him and asked him for a dance.
“Mad girl,” he shook his head and held out his hand. Al leaned by the side of the window for support and slowly held her by the waist. They danced by the window overlooking the pool.
“I won’t leave you like this, Al, that’s for sure,” she smiled at him.
“We’ll see about that when the time comes. Now you work on your language. Your writing skills need to improve.” He smiled at her.
“You know what? I used to get ninety-nine out of a hundred in English back home. For your information, I have studied in a convent.”
“Indian English, you mean?” he winked.
“No, colonial English, you jerk.” She laughed.
They sat down on the sofa, and she reached out and held his hand.
“I am scared to ask you to go home after the ranting you just did, but it is getting late, and you have work tomorrow. Remember? Your horrid boss will be up in arms if you are late.” He spoke cautiously.
“Good night.” She pecked him on the cheek. “By the way, a friend of mine from India is living with his Filipino girlfriend. Another colleague is also living in. I don’t think the law of the land is getting in their way. You’re just a silly old man.”
“You are incorrigible.” Al laughed.
That night Al fell from his bed and hurt his back. He lay trembling on the floor for a long time before he rang for help. The building manager called for an ambulance, and Al was rushed to the American hospital. Simona was there every day during visiting hours. She sat across his bed and held his hand tight.
“You will be fine. Trust me.” She tried to put up a brave front. She gave him an update of the production, cracked jokes and tried her best to cheer him up.
Debbie took her out for dinner and tried to comfort her. “Don’t worry, darling, he will get well.”
“I am alright. It is just that I’m tired. How have you been doing?” she yawned.
“Guess what?” Debbie put out her left hand and flashed a diamond ring on her finger. “He took me to the Gold Souk and bought me this ring. Yes, he proposed to me.”
“Oh, my god. It is the best news I have heard in a while. A real surprise! I can’t believe it.” Simona gushed out. “Are you happy?”
“Yes, I am. Finally, my life will be stable. I won’t have to wake up every morning thinking what if I lost my job? How will I make my ends meet?” she blushed a little. “You know what? I miss India and would like to go back often. We are planning to buy a small place in the hills, and I will cool my heels. Enough of running around, I deserve a break.”
Simona smiled at her, “Of late, this is the best news that I have heard. I am so happy for you.”
“Thanks. I don’t think the boys will be able to make it in the middle of the session. Besides, I am not too sure how they will react to Girish. Though they said they were happy for me, you never really know.” She said softly, “Avik, Ella and you have to be our witnesses. You are family to me.”
“Of course. We are going to be a part of the celebration.” They hugged each other.
Excerpted with permission from the story “In Transit” from Dubai Heights, Aditi Chakraborty, Notion Press.