Heathrow Airport, London | Monday, 5:22 a.m.
“Passport? Tickets? Luggage?”
Anita Roy rattled off the list of every travel essential she could think of as her husband, Karan, stood beside her, amused by her checklist.
“Just relax, hon! I’ve got everything covered,” he said, a wide grin appearing on his face.
His wife nodded, throwing frequent glances at the departure board. “And you have the keys for the locks on both your suitcases?” she asked, observing the small group of passengers who had started to queue up for their check-in.
Karan stole a glimpse at his luggage and cussed loudly. “Dammit! I’m missing a lock for the smaller one.” Anita put her hands on her hips and looked at him sternly. “You aren’t going to scold me now, are you?” he added quickly in jest, rummaging through his laptop bag for a spare lock.
Anita scowled at his attempted humour. “Go ahead, mock me! You know what? I’m not going to pick you up on Friday morning. You can just lug your stupid suitcases and come home on the train,” she stated, feigning anger.
“Aww, Anu!” Karan moved closer and put his arms around her, “I was just kidding. You know I would be in a world of trouble if you weren’t so organised.”
Anita looked up at her husband, who at 6 feet 3 inches, was almost a whole foot taller than her. Though she would never admit it openly, she loved the difference in their heights; especially when she was nestled against his chest, the top of her head lightly tickling the ever-present stubble on his chin. There was something about his hug that made her feel calm, secure and comfortable, almost like if she was in a perfect dream.
Their tranquil moment was interrupted by an announcement crackling over the noisy PA system.
“Passengers travelling on Emirates flight EK028 to Dubai, kindly proceed for your security check.”
Anita smiled gloomily as she felt Karan loosen his arms around her. “That’s you then, I guess?” she asked, taking a couple of steps back, as he picked up both his suitcases.
“You better get going, Hon. I am going to head upstairs for the flight. I will send you a text before I board. Stay safe, and don’t let the little monsters drag you down too much. You’ll still pick me up, right?” Karan said, with the faint appearance of a twinkle in his eyes.
Anita gave him a halfhearted grin in reply.
“I’ll miss you, K,” she said softly, as he joined the priority queue for Business Class travellers.
She stood there for a few minutes, watching her husband hand over his luggage and then make his way up the escalator. As his profile disappeared from view, she felt the shadow of sadness creep over her heart.
‘Why?’ she wondered, ‘This is hardly the first time he has gone away and he’ll be back before the end of the week!’. A wistful smile formed on her lips, as her heart replied, ‘Because you are going to miss his presence and companionship. Because after a long day at work and battling with the kids in evening, you’d love nothing more than to slip into bed with his arms around you and hear him whisper sweet nothings into your ears.’
As she turned around, lost in her thoughts, Anita tripped over a large suitcase. Before she could hit the cold ceramic tiled floor of the departure lounge, a strong hand gripped her arm. Somehow recovering her balance, she stood up and stared at the owner of the hand. It was a lanky bearded man, dressed in a long woollen jacket and sporting a fedora hat on his head.
“Thank you!” she exclaimed, still a bit dazed by her sudden fall.
The man tipped his hat in response and said with the hint of an Indian accent, “Be careful now, ma’am.”
As he did so, she had a clear view of his face. Anita gasped loudly as she recognised the person.
“Mridul !!” She blurted out, taking a few steps back as if she had encountered a ghost. ‘But it can’t be!’ screamed her heart, as his bewildered steel grey eyes stared into her shocked hazel brown ones, trying to make sense of her reaction.
He seemed genuinely puzzled by her response. Anita tried to speak, but the words would not come. Her throat felt parched and her feet like they were made of rubber, wobbling uncontrollably with each step. Abruptly, she collapsed onto the floor.
As a crowd of people started to gather around Anita, the stranger she had referred to as Mridul, quietly slid away.
A loud honk from a waiting car snapped Anita out of her thoughts. She had been hunched over the steering wheel of her parked car for the past hour, replaying the events of the airport over and over again. It had only taken her a few minutes to get back up on her feet. However, the mystery man had disappeared. Desperate to locate him, she tried asking some of the people who had rushed to attend to her. But in the commotion, nobody had noticed him. After briefly looking around, she had eventually given up and returned to the car.
‘Are you sure it was him? You have had such experiences in the past, Anita. Maybe it was just someone else. The guy didn’t even recognise you. And if it was Mridul, where was the scar?’ The voices in her head were back again and she loathed it. She had to get them to stop if she wanted to think clearly.
Impulsively, she switched on the radio. As a crooning Adele tried to drown the incessant chatter of the voices, Anita glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was nearly seven in the morning. Their kids would be awake soon. Pushing the incident to a remote corner of her mind, Anita shifted the gear into Drive mode. She had a family to take care of first.
Home | Monday, 8:34 a.m.
“Hurry up, Ma! We’re going to be late. Papa’s so much more organised.”
Anita glowered as her seven-year old son, Amit, screamed from the lounge downstairs. “Just calm down, Amit. You’ll get there on time,” she replied loudly, turning around to face his sister who was seated at the dresser.
“Seriously Ruby, how do you manage to get your hair into such a mess?” she asked, trying her best to untangle their daughter’s knotted tresses. Ruby, who was almost-four-years old, giggled in response to the question but offered no answer.
‘Yes, That’s a perfectly valid explanation for the twists and clumps in your hair’ sighed Anita, as she glanced at the giant clock on the wall. They were going to be late.
As she waged a battle with Ruby’s disorderly hairdo, Anita heard loud honking from their driveway. She peeked out from the upstairs window and smiled at her neighbour, Fred Shuttleworth. Amit was already sitting in the back of the car, next to Fred’s daughter, Megan.
“Hey, Anita!” hollered Fred, leaning out from the driver side window, “Amit mentioned that you were busy. I’m headed that way to drop Meg anyway. He can hitch a ride with us to school if you don’t mind!”
Trying to mask her displeasure at her son’s craftiness, she smiled sweetly at Fred and said, “Oh, could you? That would be lovely! Thank you!”. As she stood by the window watching the car roll down the path and slowly merge with the traffic on the main road, Anita made a mental note, ‘I’ll get you in the evening, young man.’
“Mommy!” Ruby’s soft voice broke through her thoughts. “Can I go now?” she asked, her impatience now apparent.
Anita looked at her daughter and smiled. “Mommy’s not done with your hair yet, “ she replied, picking up the comb that she’d left on the dresser.
“Where is Papa? He does my hair so quickly! ” exclaimed Ruby slinking back onto the stool, as Anita started to run the comb through her daughter’s unruly hair again.
‘Damn you, Karan! Why must you always be so near perfect?’ she cursed her husband, trying to move as quickly as possible.
London Underground, Between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park Stations,
The same day, 9:49 a.m.
“Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen! We’re currently experiencing minor delays on the Eastbound Picadilly Line due to a signal failure at Holborn station.
This train will be held here for a few minutes to help regulate the service while the issue is fixed”.
The crowded train compartment erupted in a series of loud groans and choice expletives, as the gruff voice of the train driver blared over the public announcement system.
Anita frowned as the train chugged to a halt. She checked her watch and exhaled loudly, causing the elderly gentleman seated on her left to look up from his Sudoku puzzle. As he raised an eyebrow and shook his head disapprovingly, Anita looked away. ’Thank you, Coffee Gods!’ she muttered, taking a long swig from her travel flask.
As the strong, warm liquid traversed down her throat and the caffeine slowly kicked in, she felt a lot calmer. ‘Just what I need after this morning!’ she mused fishing out her smartphone from the depths of her over-sized Louis Vuitton handbag.
Phil Cooper, her boss, was a stickler for punctuality and he would be less than impressed with her tardiness. And to make matters worse, they had a meeting with a high-profile client at half-past ten this morning, and the way her day was unravelling, she was not going to make it.
‘I’ll send him a text,’ she thought, typing out a message on her phone.
After checking the message for errors, she pressed the ‘Send’ button on the screen. As the ‘No Network Coverage’ message popped up, she cussed loudly. A young mother who sat opposite with a toddler on her lap flashed her a nasty look.
Muttering an apology, Anita dropped the phone back into her handbag and took another gulp from the travel mug. Having reached the bottom, her caffeine elixir had magically transformed into a lukewarm sugary concoction.
‘Well played, Life!’ she groaned, spitting the syrup back into the mug.
A quick look around the compartment confirmed that most of the other passengers were in the exact state of mind as she was – anxious and impatient. In a city where everyone was always in a hurry, nobody wanted to be stuck in a train for any longer than was necessary. And most definitely not during the morning rush hour, when the number of passengers aboard the train outnumbered the total capacity by a large ratio.
For a moment, Anita pondered over getting off at the next station and getting a cab to work. ‘Maybe I should just drive to work!’ she deliberated, watching two well-dressed men discussing something animatedly. She leaned back into the seat and tried to relax. Her eyelids felt droopy and she just wanted to give in and go to sleep. But she couldn’t. The incident at the airport had really jolted her and every time her eyes closed, the image of the stranger flashed in front of her.
‘Why hadn’t the man recognised her? And where was the scar?’ she wondered, battling her sagging eyelids. As the image of man’s piercing steel grey eyes started to form again, Anita forcibly opened her eyes. She needed a distraction.
Trying to push the image from her mind, she took out her iPad from the bag in the hope of completing the novel that she had started to read months ago. As she flicked through the virtual pages, an uneasy feeling crept over her. She felt like she was being watched. Cautiously, she looked around. Most of her fellow passengers were absorbed in their own worlds – eyes lowered and neck facing downwards, staring at their smartphones or tablets; some others were hunched over a copies of the free newspaper that was available throughout the country, lost in Sudoku puzzles or mind-numbing crosswords; and a few of the hip-youngsters with their state-of-the-art headphones, were vigorously nodding their heads along to some random beats that played off their iPods.
She soon spotted the source of her uneasiness – a middle-aged Caucasian man, dressed in a bright red tee. The tee was perhaps a couple of sizes too small and hence accentuated his pudgy midriff. As he caught her eyes, he flashed her a lewd smile and ran his hands through his thinning hair.
“Screw you!” she gestured angrily and diverted her attention back towards her iPad, which had run out of charge. ‘Mr. Murphy strikes again!’ she murmured, glancing towards the adjacent compartment, hoping to find a distraction from both her thoughts as well as the bawdy stranger.
As she let her gaze wander, flitting from one commuter to another, she spotted the profile of a bearded man with a distinctive up-turned nose. He was dressed in a dull-grey woollen winter coat and a black fedora hat, that was pulled down low, thereby obstructing a proper view of his face. However, Anita clutched her handbag tightly, as soon as she saw him. It was the man from the airport – the one who looked exactly like Mridul. As panic bells started to go off in her head, she strained in her seat to get a proper look at him.
‘Is that him again? Surely, it can’t be.’ Her mind refused to give into what her eyes had located.
Anita blinked twice, just to make sure she was not hallucinating. But the mystery man was still there, leaning against the side window, his gaze rooted deep in a book he held. As she contemplated moving closer to the man, the train suddenly lurched forward and the public announcement system came on.
“Ladies and gents, this is your driver speaking. I’ve just received word that the signal failure has been rectified and we hope to be on the move shortly. London Underground would like to apologise for any inconvenience that this unexpected delay may have caused. Thank you for your patience.”
A loud cheer spread through the compartment, temporarily distracting Anita from her observation.
‘Let it go! It is not Mridul. You very well know the reason why. That man is just a hallucination’ berated her inner voice, as the train started to gather speed. She so badly wanted to believe the practical observation that her mind had made, but her heart vehemently disagreed.
As the train pulled into Green Park station, the compartment suddenly became a flurry of activity. Seats were vacated in a hurry and there were outbursts of minor scuffles as the passengers, who had not managed to find a seat so far, suddenly made a lunge for the now-empty seats before the new patrons boarded.
Amidst this confusion, Anita tried to focus her sights on the mystery man. But she could no longer find him inside the train. Swiftly turning around to face the platform, her eyes darted from one person to another. Within seconds, she had spotted him again. He was standing at the end of the platform, with his back facing the train. As the doors of the train started to close, Anita saw the man take off his fedora and wipe his face with a piece of cloth. And then, he suddenly turned around, as if sensing her gaze upon him.
It was someone else!
Sinking back into her seat, Anita closed her eyes, temporarily muting the clatter of noises around her. A lone tear slowly glided down her cheek, caking her makeup in the process. She was somewhat relieved to find that this mystery man from the train was neither Mridul nor the one from the airport. However, the discovery had also opened another door – one that she had forced shut many years ago.
After eight long years since her last episode, she had started to hallucinate once again.
From his vantage point at the other end of the carriage, camouflaged by his fellow passengers, the lanky bearded man smiled slyly as he slipped on a hoodie jacket - one he'd exchanged his fedora and winter coat for.
****** End ******
[This is actually part of an unpublished, and (perhaps abandoned) manuscript of mine. Hence the rather ‘abrupt’ ending, although I don’t think I’ll complete this MS]
[Psst. Also, if you’ve enjoyed reading my blog posts over the years, I’d appreciate it if you could pop by, and leave a comment. It could just help the blog win at the #IBA2017 Awards by Indiblogger. Just click on the image and you’ll be taken to the link. Thank you!]