Marie leaned back in the chair, holding the brandy to her chest, the rain tapping on the windowpanes. She usually had a drink after dinner, while she listened to old songs on the radio, like today, or to plays on other evenings, or stories, or youngsters griping about their love life. Tonight, she had allowed herself a second drink, despite her heart problem. Her sister had called in the morning to say Patrick was in town and would visit her around tea time. Marie baked a carrot walnut cake, touched up her greys and filed her nails, and when he didn’t arrive until 5 o’clock, she prepared pulao and jalfrezi for dinner. Dinner time passed without the doorbell ringing. She ate alone at the table at last. As she put away the leftovers, she admitted to herself that she had been waiting to see her nephew for fifteen years now. It had been an odd day full of expectancy, of something pending and unresolved, the ponderous clouds refusing to burst, the doorbell refusing to ring. Marie sipped at her brandy now. Some Days are Diamonds (Some Days are Stone) played on the radio . The wind rustled in the trees outside, making the rain more insistent. Drops streaked down the windowpanes.
A rapid knock on the door startled Marie. She slipped on her chappals and hastened to the door. But even before she turned the key in the lock, she heard the watchman’s voice, “Madam, are you awake?”
“What is it?” she grumbled, opening the door. “So late in the night.”
The night watchman, short but broad-chested, stood under a dripping, black umbrella.
“Madam, a fugitive is on the loose. Please make sure your windows and doors are secured.”
“Ah, yes, that. Heard something on the radio. Still hasn’t been caught, has he?” The slanting rain sprayed Marie’s toes, the hem of her nightgown.
“Not yet, but don’t worry, I’m on guard.” He clapped his chest. He then hurried to the apartment upstairs.
Back in the living room, Marie tugged at the windows, and finding one open indeed, fastened it. A little rain had trickled on to the sideboard, and she wiped it with the end of her stole. She picked up Matt’s photograph and polished it with the other end. She could call her sister to check if Patrick was still coming, but she knew that seeing him would bring up afresh the memory of losing Matt. Matt would have been thirty-five now, if he hadn’t died that day on the lake. He who was a swimming champion. She sighed. She kissed the picture, polished it again and set it back. She returned to her chair and sipped the brandy. The RJ related an anecdote about the time The Beatles visited an ashram in Rishikesh. Marie waited to see which Beatles song he might play next, but he put on George Harrison’s solo My Sweet Lord. The rain drummed wildly on rooftops, leaves, cars, tarmac, windows and doors, and for a moment the lights in the living room dimmed — Marie watched a bulb blink — but thankfully the power didn’t cut.
The doorbell rang. “I checked the windows,” she hollered, but it rang again, not urgently, like it was the watchman’s manner, but with a measured patience. She glanced at the clock — not quite 9.30 yet.
This time she opened the door only part way. A man in a wet raincoat and hat, briefcase in hand, stood outside, the rain hammering at his back. Marie narrowed her eyes against the darkness, the wind, the mad rain.
“Patrick?” Marie screwed her eyes further.
He nodded and drops bounced off the brim of his hat.
The wind pushed at the door, making it fly and almost propelling Patrick in. “Oh dear, what a night. Come in, quick.” She leaned her weight against the door and shut it.
Patrick stood on the doormat, arms out, like a large, dripping tree. His squelching raincoat and shoes, the wet briefcase, the pool forming on the mat, dispelled the awkwardness that Marie had anticipated in the first moments of his arrival. She took his coat and hat to hang in the bathroom and brought him a towel. Patrick dried himself. He had grown leaner, she noticed, harder in some ways, his curly hair already grey at the temples. She tried to imagine Matt with greys, and what it would have been like to watch him mature, grow old.
Patrick hung the towel on the back of a chair. His stomach rumbled. He gave a tight smile.
“Did you have dinner?”
He shook his head.
“Oh. Give your aunt five minutes then. Sit down, make yourself at home.”
She took out the casseroles from the fridge and put them in the microwave. Dancing Queen came on and she called to Patrick to turn up the volume. “Would you like a sherbet? Or a soda?” she hollered. “No, but some coffee later, if it’s not more trouble.” She checked for milk in the fridge. She cut a cucumber salad, serrating it first with the teeth of the peeler, to make the slices pretty. The microwave went beep beep beep . She liked this sudden business, her sense of purpose, and how merry the house felt, with the song playing, and Patrick in the living room, and a fragrant plume curling up from the jalfrezi. She took out the nice china and laid the table. Patrick was standing in front of the showcase. “Same old knick-knacks,” she said, “and of course each one of Matt’s medals and trophies... Come then, dinner’s ready,” she added, with an effort to brighten up. She retrieved her brandy from near the stereo. She held the glass up to the light. Did Patrick take a swig? She wouldn’t put it past him. He and Matt had stolen from the liquor cabinet a whole summer before anyone found out, she smiled remembering. Patrick looked up. “Nothing.” She waved it off.
Patrick ate with gusto, cleaning off first the pulao, then the remaining jalfrezi with a couple of bread rolls Marie warmed up, and in the end even finishing off the salad. She brought him a coffee and a cake slice for each of them. The rain was coming down in torrents, as though bent on obliterating everything.
“Your mother told me to expect you in the afternoon.” Marie pried a walnut from her slice to eat. “I thought after tea we would sit together and look through old photo albums. And if you were not in a rush to leave, you could help me give away your uncle’s clothes, which I still haven’t had the heart to do. And perhaps fix a bulb in the bathroom that I can’t reach.”
“I got caught up with some work.”
“Still selling water purifiers?”
She toyed with her cake, raking the edge with the fork. “After Matt passed away, you forgot all about your aunt, never called, never came to see her.”
Patrick remained quiet. His eyes, which had once been full of mirth, were large and empty in his lean face.
“I’ll admit, for a long time, I blamed you for Matt’s death.”
Patrick was about to pick up his coffee — he froze. He hunched over his cup.
“Often, I found myself thinking what if you had been careful on the lake that day and not keeled over, what if you had let Matt carry you safely back to the boat, instead of struggling underwater with him. To think he could have been here today, sitting with us, at this table.” She wiped her nose with her stole. “But Matt loved you so much, you were his favourite cousin, of course he jumped in after you.”
Patrick reached for her hand and for a while they sat fingers clasped.
Ain’t No Sunshine started .
They stood up and moved to the open space between the dining table and the sofas, and as they danced, she let her head rest against his chest, and he held her close. To Marie, it was as though they were grieving together at last, giving in to the sadness, the solace, the solidarity of it.
The song ended and the late-night news bulletin came on. Marie cleared the plates and cup. Patrick turned off the radio.
She brought him one of her husband’s old night suits to wear and told him to sleep the night in Matt’s room. The rain had calmed down to a murmur, but it was too late to drive anywhere. And Marie liked the idea of not waking up to an empty house.
She lay in bed for a long time, listening to the watchman’s shrill whistle — shriller tonight — and his wet footsteps passing outside the house, receding and coming back. Lulled, at last she fell asleep.
Tomorrow morning the rain will have cleared, birds will chirp and the light coming in through the windows would be glorious, but Marie will not wake up to see it.
Sonal Kohli lives in Washington, DC, and her debut novel ‘The House Next to the Factory’ will be published by HarperCollins India in August