And the beat goes on
Nina thinks that she is once again back on the rails. In fact, she is quite insistent about it. She is now her own efficient self once again, the backbone of the small team she works in. She is almost always the first person in the office, the one who switches on the hall lights and sets the coffee percolator going. Other than two days a week when she forces herself to attend the yoga classes under the strict instruction of her doctor, she is also the last person to leave together with the cleaning lady. She eats her frugal lunch in the lunch room, listening but hardly ever participating in the animated conversation of her colleagues around her. She finds it perfectly normal that her female colleagues have now stopped inviting her out for after-work drinks or the ritualistic lunch time window shopping. She does not miss their constant ragging about her plain, almost dowdy clothes, her sensible shoes, her scrubbed face without a trace of makeup….Nina really believes that she is doing fine…
It is true that her life had gone totally out of kilter for a time. The physical pain was quickly taken care of. Not the grey haze that engulfed her everyday life, though. She did not dare to venture outdoors; in fact, she had difficulty getting out of bed. She had gratefully accepted the invitation from her childhood friend Ruby who had travelled hundreds of miles and taken Nina away. To the old brick house with the rambling garden, warmed by the generous sun and the carefree laughter of two lovely children. Nina’s boss had insisted on her going away. Ari had taken care of all her pending work. Nina, who loved the house and loved the whole family, had basked in the warmth, and the fog in her head had gradually cleared. And one day she had said goodbye to them and taken the long train ride back to her home.
She was surprised by the visit of Anita & Ari that Saturday. Too tired to ask too many questions, Nina sat back in her favorite reading chair and watched listlessly as they quickly replaced the lock on her door, screwed on the sliding chain lock, installed the peephole that looked like a fish eye. Anita handed her a sheaf of papers from the telephone company which informed her that her telephone number has been changed on request, and now she had access to a host of free services. Ari set up the speed dialing menu on the phone –police, ambulance, fire brigade, her doctor, her close friends. Her cell phone was programmed likewise, this time with at least five different taxi services. They confiscated her old key ring with the miniature dolphin that had seen better days, and handed her a brand new one – a smart fluorescent rectangle that looked like a USB flash drive, glowed in the dark and acted as a torch. They left after a while, telling her cheerfully that everything was now as safe & secure as can be….
So Nina entered her old life once again. Hesitantly at first, like a child learning to walk, and gradually becoming more confident. She has now stopped looking over her shoulders constantly, of cringing visibly when someone approached her. She is once more able to look at strangers, even speak to them if necessary. But she scrupulously avoids dark streets, over or under passes, street corner musicians, the neighborhood police station. She religiously switches off the radio or the television whenever she hears a sax playing. She has got into the habit of sliding on the chain lock as soon as she returned to her flat. She now knows her new telephone number by heart. And she sleeps with all the lights blazing in her apartment. Yes, Nina has decided that she is fine. She is just waiting for her friends & colleagues to accept the fact as well.
In fact, that was the mainly why she accepted the invitation for the afterhours cocktail that Friday, to the general surprise of her colleagues, which tickled Nina no end. As usual, the majority of the women left early to go home & change. By five pm the office was almost empty. Nina had no intention of going home. But she didn’t feel like working either. It was a bright day, like you sometimes get when winter is not yet quite over and spring is not yet quite there. Looking out of her office window, she saw that Green Park was teeming with people – young mothers pushing prams, small children running around the still bare trees, couples walking hand in hand. She was suddenly filled with the urge to go out into the sun, to dissolve into the anonymous crowd. In her eagerness she forgot all about tidying up her work station and stood tapping her feet impatiently in front of the elevator.
The park was indeed very crowded. But this did not bother Nina today. She decided to walk the narrow path under the tall trees that went around the park, away from the concrete walkway where kids traced out wild trajectories with their skates. She walked under the bare trees, on the slightly muddy path, intent on feeling the still feeble sun on her face. She felt curiously light hearted and happy, for no apparent reason, and for once, she did not delve to understand or rationalize. She thought about the long walks she had taken with her parents in spring and summer, her father teaching her to recognize the plants and flowers that grew wild. ‘I have forgotten a lot’, she thought ruefully. ‘Maybe I should join a nature study circle and learn all over again’. She remembered the taste of the ice creams she had at the end of these walks, and suddenly felt a craving for ice cream. She decided to go to the garden café at the other end of the park….
The café, like the rest of the park, was full too. The tables were pushed out on the grass, and every one of them was taken. The counter, however, was relatively free. Nina stood at the counter, waiting for her strawberry & vanilla cone. A man was standing on the far side of the counter, drinking a large cup of cappuccino. A little girl skipped around the counter, totally ignoring her mother’s admonishments. Nina eagerly started on her cone, and closed her eyes in rapture at the long forgotten taste and all the memories it brought back. When she opened her eyes, the man with the cappuccino was looking straight at her, a chocolate smudge on his long nose. Nina noticed a pair of keen blue eyes crinkled with laughter.
– ‘You must like your ice cream a lot’, he said, now with a broad smile on his face.
– ‘I do, actually’, said Nina crossly. ‘Is there a problem with that?’
– ‘No, no, none at all. Except that you’ve got a pink mustache now. It’s rather comical, you know’.
– ‘Well, you’ve got cappuccino on your nose, and that’s ‘comical’ as well’.
And suddenly both of them were laughing, reaching for the paper napkins. Nina took this opportunity to take a good look at her neighbor. The first thing that caught her eyes was the amount of studs he seemed to have on him – belt, boots, the jacket that was slung on the counter. In fact, he had a rather leathery look, she decided, not totally unpleasant. ‘Probably a biker’, she thought, and now noticed the tattoo on one forearm. The discreet scrutiny had lasted only a couple of seconds, but she was caught at it.
– ‘So what is the verdict, then’? he asked ‘Do I pass the test?’
Nina felt her face burning, not only with shame but with anger as well. At the cheekiness of the man. At being caught out. At being incapable of finding a suitable retort. All she could come out with was a totally lame ‘I don’t know what you mean’.
– ‘I think you do’, he said, ‘but never mind, I was only joking. Hey, it was nice meeting you. Have a nice evening’.
And with that he was off, walking with an easy swinging gait. Nina could see the studs twinkling in the dying rays of the sun. She felt annoyed with herself, but not inordinately. The lovely balmy day definitely had a role to play, she decided. But now the sun was setting, and suddenly she could feel the chill in the air. The park was emptying rapidly now. Mothers were busy zipping up the coats of their children, bundling them in their prams. The young kids were leaving in groups, their roller skates and skate boards tucked under arms. Nina joined the throng and walked out of the park leisurely, feeling rather lighthearted and happy, after a very long time…
The lovely weather, however, did not hold –not surprising, given the time of the year. The cold clammy weather was back very soon, grey days with fog or rain. It dampened everybody’s spirits – conversations flagged, there was no chatting around the coffee machine. By six that evening, Nina felt too depressed to stay on in the empty office and equally discouraged to go out in the pouring rain that lashed at the glass doors of the lobby and the wind howled desolately. She looked ruefully at her fragile umbrella – it would be of little use in this weather.
A few people were huddling in front of the glass door, waiting for a lull in the storm. Nina drifted towards the door, and then changed her mind. She suddenly craved for a strong cup of coffee, and so made her way towards the little cafeteria that was tucked at the back of the big entrance hall. The café was completely empty and Lisa was comfortably settled behind the counter with a glossy magazine. She smiled a welcome while Nina settled down on a high stool and asked for her ‘regular’. The coffee tasted strong and sweet and smelt divine. After a few desultory remarks, Lisa went back to her magazine while Nina sat sipping her coffee, mesmerized by the rain that continued unabated. Other than the drumming sound of the rain, everything was quiet – the daytime bustle of the lobby seemed a distant memory. Nina felt safe and warm, reluctant to move, enjoying the warmth of the coffee mug clasped in her hands.
She was awakened from her reverie by a loud clatter just outside the café door. A man walked in, taking off a helmet, shaking rain from his leather jacket, stamping his feet on the door mat drying wet boots. Lisa looked up and her round face creased into a smile, becoming a broad grin as the man addressed her.
– ‘Hello luv, so glad to see you’re still open. Beast of a day, innit? Lucky you, all warm and dry behind that counter. I been up and down and round and round all day, nonstop. Time to go home now, but not before I’ve had a bite to eat.’
– ‘Hey Gary’ Lisa said ‘what can I get you then, honey? I still have a couple of chocolate cakes left. Or would you like something hot?’
Nina was surprised to hear Lisa talking like that. As a rule she was polite, but not effusive. She twisted around on her stool to look at this special person. And found herself staring at the stranger she had met in the garden café that bright sunny day. His face now broke out into a broad grin :
– ‘Now if this ain’t the ice cream lady’ he said. ‘And how are we today?’
– ‘WE are all right, thank you’, Nina said tartly, hoping that the conversation would end there.
– ‘So no ice cream today, eh? Too cold for it, I guess’.
Lisa, serving the man now, looked curiously at Nina.
– ‘You two know each other, then?’ she said, not sounding totally happy.
– ‘No Lisa, I don’t’ said Nina, and couldn’t help adding ‘but it seems you do….’
– ‘Ah yes, we’re mates, aren’t we, Lisa?’ breezed the man presumably called Gary. ‘Wouldn’t have survived with my job if it wasn’t for her café here’, he said.
– ‘My pleasure, Gary. Would feed ya any time, you know that’ said Lisa, almost simpering.
Nina was genuinely amazed at Lisa’s reaction. She smiled to herself. So Lisa did have another face, she thought secretly, and turned around to watch the rain again.
– ‘You work in this building, lady?’
Nina turned back to the man again, her amazement growing with every passing second. She has been working in this building for the past six years, and other than exchanging polite greetings when unavoidable, the people working here did not speak to strangers. Not even when sharing tables in this oft crowded café.
– ‘Yes, I do. But I don’t remember seeing you before’ said Nina.
– ‘Ah, not surprising, that. I’m outdoors a lot. But I have seen you before here’ he said.
Nina had finished her coffee, and started gathering up her things. It was still raining, but the wind seemed to have died down a bit. She waved a general goodbye and walked out of the café. She was walking towards the bus stop when a motor bike screeched to halt beside her. Gary was in full war paint now, complete with helmet, gloves and goggles.
– ‘Want a lift, lady? Saves you walking in the rain. I have a spare helmet in my pannier’
Nina looked at the bike. A bright red Honda, covered with gleaming metal plates. Gary was perched on the seat, waiting for a reply, seemingly oblivious of cars and buses giving him and his bike a wide berth.
– ‘No thank you’, she said, ‘Actually, I’m a bit scared of riding on bikes. But thanks for offering’.
– ‘Please yourself’, he said, ‘but I’m a very safe biker’. And with that he was gone, in a flash of red black & silver. Nina continued her miserable walk towards the bus stand….
In the next few weeks, Nina came across Gary quite a few times. He always had a bright smile & a cheery greeting whenever they met – in the hallway or the lift or the café where Nina now went more frequently. She saw him chatting with girls in all these places, blonds, brunettes, redheads, always a different one. During a chance conversation with Lisa she learnt that Gary was employed in an ad company housed in the building. He was a sort of odd job man, but mostly did delivery jobs.
– ‘He’s a real sport’, said Lisa, ‘and he sure likes women’, which confirmed Nina’s observation. ‘Not a bad looking bloke, really, and that crooked smile – a lot of girls in this building are quite enchanted with him, you know’, she confided.
– ‘You seem to be quite fond of him yourself, Lisa, or am I wrong?’
– ‘Oh, I like him all right, like all my other customers. But yes, he does put a smile on many a face. Not like a lot of other men in this building, the poor nerds….’
– ‘You’re right there, Lisa. You know what, I’ve seen him with all sorts of women in these last few days, and they sure seem to enjoy his company. Bit of an Adonis, is he?’
– ‘Ach Nina, I don’t know who Adonis is…..’
Winter was on its way out at last. The days started getting longer. The sun, though still pale and weak, was getting warmer every day. The crocuses stuck their tiny heads out first in the small patch of grass that surrounded the glass and chrome building. The daffodils and the buttercups soon followed. The heavy winter coats & scarves were gradually being replaced with lighter and more colorful attire. Cirrus clouds floated high in the blue sky, light as fleece, and equally beautiful. Spring was finally on its way.
Nina chanced across Gary in Green Park one lunch time. She had come out to eat her sandwich in the park, intending to spend some time enjoying the magnificent weather. She had a scientific journal with her, but her attention kept wandering. Life was sprouting all around her, much more exciting than the dry article she had been reading. She practically jumped out of her skin when he spoke to her.
-‘Hello there, little lady. Decided to come out into the open, have you? And a good thing too. Blimey – look at that sun!’ And with that, he plonked down beside Nina. ‘I got a sandwich too. Thought I’d sit out in the sun rather than in that poky old café’.
For a second, Nina did not know what to do. But his good humor was somehow infectious. She found herself smiling broadly. The spring was definitely in the air….
They chatted for a long time. It was not too difficult – Gary was quite a chatterbox. He was easy to talk to, and very funny. He regaled her with all sorts of office gossip, and though Nina did not know anyone he was talking about, she thoroughly enjoyed it. He talked about the bikers club he belonged to, the long road trips, the bonhomie of the members at the end of a long dusty day. He talked about his job, saying that he preferred being outdoors to ‘paper pushing’ in closed offices. ‘Can’t complain with me job, really, given that I have no qualifications,’ he said casually. At this, Nina sat up.
-‘ What do you mean, no qualifications?’
– ‘Well, I got kicked out of school, didn’t I? Never got on with the teachers, in any case. So I got myself a job in a factory, and I’ve been working ever since. But you must have had a good education, eh? You talk real nice and posh’.
– ‘Er, yes, though I too did not always get on with my teachers’.
– ‘Girls are much better at obeying, I guess. All my girlfriends had finished school, at least. Had one lass who was even going to college.’
– ‘You have a lot of girlfriends, then? Nina asked, amused. ‘How do you manage?’
– ‘Oh but I only have one at a time. Never cheat on the filly I’m going out with. That won’t be fair, now, would it?’
Nina looked at her watch & jumped. She would be late for the meeting – it was a good ten minutes walk back to the office. So when Gary offered to drop her at the office on his bike, Nina accepted gratefully.
– ‘See, it was easy, wasn’t it?’ quipped Gary as she was getting off the bike; ‘Now you won’t be afraid anymore.’
This is how the whole thing started. Chance meetings, occasional lunches in the park, coffee or ice cream in the café downstairs. Nina was totally fascinated by the man, so different from anyone she had known, so far out of her orbit, her sheltered and aseptic life. He knew very little about her world, and she knew practically nothing about his, except what he told her. Growing up in a small town, with little to do other than going to the pub and chat up girls, inebriated evenings and nights, vicious brawls and fights. ‘Fast bikes, cold beer and hot women’ is the way he put it. She loved listening to his stories, surprised by the knowledge ‘acquired in the school of life’. She hardly had any stories to tell, and realized once again how dull her life so far had been. He made her laugh, and she made him laugh too – not with funny and absurd jokes but her sheer ignorance about a lot of worldly things. Now that spring was there to stay, they went for long walks in the different parks in the city. And Nina now had no qualms about riding pillion on his Honda. She loved the rush of the air in her face, loved the thrill of empty highways in early mornings. In return, she took him to the cinema, to the small Italian restaurant that had become a second home to her. She taught him to use a computer, amazed that in this day & age there were still people who couldn’t care less about being tech savvy. In short, Nina was happy.
In the beginning, she had spent hours thinking about this strange relationship. Images from Pygmalion and Lady Chatterley and Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a host of other books had flocked to her mind. She had stayed awake at night weighing the pros and cons. She had thought about avoiding Gary, which would have been easy to do. But she knew she did not want to.
For once in her life, Nina would go with the flow…..