[This is the first of a series of short stories I am going to share on my site]
I picked up my book and picnic basket from the car and headed for a quiet corner of the park where I could sit and read. I have been doing that often lately.
My days have more hours in them than the chores, and I have been trying to pass the time by reading books I have been putting aside to read for a long time. But even reading doesn’t help me take away my mind from what I have been trying to forget.
I spread the checkered rug on a green patch of grass under a gum tree. Sun rays were filtering down through the canopy of leaves. I placed the picnic basket on the side and poured myself a cup of tea from the thermos. Fumbling with one hand, I opened the book and started reading from where I had left it before.
I read for some time but realized nothing had gone in. Closing the book, I lay down on the rug looking at the sky. Occasional clouds were drifting aimlessly against the light blue horizon. A row of pine trees edging the park boundary looked dejected. What has got into me! I need to get out of this miserable state! I knew that, but I didn’t know-how.
I got startled by someone’s cough and sat down. A book lying on my chest fell on the rug when I turned around to face the intruder.
“I am sorry,” an old, hunched man with a walking stick got embarrassed, “I didn’t mean to scare you like this.”
“It is all right.” I sat up on the rug facing him. He was a medium height man, seemed to be in his eighties, and dressed in brown trousers and a loose jumper. He probably came to this park often, and I was perhaps the one invading his territory.
“I wonder if you have some water. I forgot to have my blood pressure medicine this morning.” He reached into his shirt pocket from the neck of his jumper and produced a leaf of tablets.
“Yes. Sure.” I took out the water bottle and plastic cup from the basket and poured him some water.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the glass from my hand. He swallowed the tablet with the water and handed the cup back to me, asking, “Do you mind if I sit down here for a while. My blood pressure drops after taking the medication.
“Sure,” I made some space on the rug for him, and he sat on it with the help of his stick.
“You might need to help me get up.” He muttered, “It is easier to sit than to get up at my age.”
“No problem.” Any other time I would have regretted his presence, but today I was craving for human company.
We started chatting. He lived nearby. His wife had passed away a couple of years ago. Both his kids, a son, and a daughter, were married and lived at the opposite ends of Australia, one in Perth other in Cairns. Each year he visited them–one trip to the east coast and the other to the west coast. This way crossed the whole breadth of the country each year.
“Imagine how many frequent flyers points I earn.”
“My wife and I used to come to this park each evening for a walk. I can still feel her presence in the air when I come here. This was her favorite spot. We would bring our checkered rug, same as yours, and have breakfast here some mornings. When I saw you today sitting here, I had to talk to you.”
“I am glad you did.”
“My name is John.” He extended his hand.
“I am Jaya,” I said and shook his hand. He was pretty formal in his mannerism.
We chatted for some time afterward. I helped John get up, and he went for a walk around the park. He waved me goodbye before walking to his house. I started coming to the park often. As if watching from his window, John would also come soon after. We starting taking walks together, just like he and his wife used to. He was a sweet old man, and I didn’t mind his company. He told me stories from his past. His passion for his wife was clear from the way he described the things they did together.
One such day, after the walk, when we were resting on a bench, he suddenly said, “Enough.”
“Enough what, John?” I asked, wondering what was bothering him.
“Enough of your silence. You are a young woman who has plenty of life in front of you. What is bothering you? I can tell it is a lost love.”
I looked at him, surprised at the transparency of my demeanor. Was I still an open book. He was right. I have spent too long running from reality. I have to face it one day. Somehow it felt right to face it with John.
“I had everything a woman of my age and culture could desire,” I began looking at the white line that an airplane was creating across the horizon, “A husband, a son, a daughter, and a job in the publishing world.”
John followed my gaze and discovered the airplane just before it disappeared behind the pine trees. “What happened,” he asked.
“Last year, we went to India for a holiday.”
He listened without interrupting.
“On the way back, the plane was overbooked. They asked if we wanted to have a stopover at the airline’s expense.”
John turned so that he can see my face better.
“We were delighted at the opportunity, but then I remembered that I needed to be at the launch of a new book my company was publishing. I asked if there was one seat available.”
John said nothing.
“Next day, when I was launching the book, they put my children and husband were on Flight MH370.”
John put his arm around me.
Another airplane passed across the sky. This time we didn’t look up.
© Neera Mahajan Aug 2015