Those Golden Bells

By Harpreet Kaur Vohra

Pat had romanced the kitchen ever since she could remember; her repertoire was slathered with drool dripping dishes like vindaloo, Parsee chicken and balichow. Her kitchen was always filled with some aroma, of either chopped basil, popping poppy seeds or desiccated roasting coconut. She created joie de vivre in her little kitchen with all its olfactory magic!

This is one of the many parties that she was going to host with her husband, Julian. She had rechristened him ‘Ju’ just on their second meeting- on a rainy day under the awning of their favourite restaurant, Abba in Shillong. Ju had a fondness for entertaining and Pat perpetually kept the money flowing. He was connoisseur and King while she was Creator and Queen apparent. They thus made the perfect entertaining couple.

Christmas had been knocking at the door- sounds of ‘We wish you’… ‘l’ll have a blue Christmas’… and ‘When a child was born’ were reverberating in the cold air. Sprigs of holly, soft cuddly Santa Clauses and glossy China made Christmas trees became ubiquitous overnight. The feeling of Christmas arriving seemed to have added a luster to the humblest shaft of breeze that blew around the otherwise sleepy town. There was just so much of fervent rejoicing everywhere!

Pat had been contemplating a unique celebration this time. “Ju”, she said, “Let’s do something really special this Christmas. Golden will be the theme and gala will be the scheme”, she laughed in an attempt to be cheekily poetic. Ju nodded in approbation, as he too was looking forward to a grand celebration again. Pat went to the supermarket to shop, and golden were her views like the proverbial alchemist. Little golden sheep with golden fleece like the ram of Colchis, gold dusted pine cones, golden cardboard gift boxes tied with golden ribbons and a shimmery golden star. She could almost immediately conjure her Christmas tree gilded in its imposing royalty.

Her basket was filling fast, and as she was about to leave, she was struck by the sight of a string of golden brass bells- tiny tinkling bells which complained in the breeze a little as they were close to the shivery entrance. “This would just wrap my Christmas tree up with a final golden cuddle”, she thought. She lightly held the string in her hand and it tinkled gently, slightly flirtatiously, creating a stir in an otherwise quiet, almost closing-time departmental store. She gently removed the red-yellow string from its hook and placed it on the counter. There was something delicately special about the bells- 16 bells strung on a multi-coloured thread and in a slightly superstitious vein she also remembered that she had met Julian on the 16 of April many years ago. “Just perfect for my golden tree”, she mulled, as she lifted the bells and carefully put them in her cart. The bells were packed in a colourful, spangled paper bag which adorned the heap of her shopping.

Shillong was really cold at this time of the year. A walk past any row of houses would send fumes of burning coal into the nose-that comforting, slightly toxic smell which was reassuring in the still winters. It seemed the leaves of trees would make a crackling groan when the breeze lightly blew in the evening. The hens were nestled in their coops and the puppies were huddled on old sacks, hiding away their creamy bellies. Patricia loved strays and they seemed to intuitively make their way into her home. She had a cat called ‘fauji’ (the effect of living close to the Assam Rifles Head quarters) and a dog called Rusty. Fauji was disciplined but largely mean while Rusty looked brusque but was unassumingly gentle and relaxed. They all formed part of Pat’s teeming household. Their cottage was named Daisykot and it resembled a grotto, festooned with bougainvillea and poinsettias, dotted with daisies and fragrantly sprinkled with lemon grass and orange trees – a virtual, little, perfect paradise. The little school she ran with a potpourri of tiny children kept her going. Little nose running Nepali children, plump Khasi girls and boys and oily- haired, studious Bengali children formed the demography of her school. She worked her way through her day with the kids and always felt a sense of exhilaration in their squeals and innocent questions. “Miss, I bring a rose for you today”, Felicia, a five year old said in her new found English. She presented a blood red rose which she had carefully plucked from her garden after keeping a sly eye on it for one whole Sunday; and now it was perfectly ready for Miss Patricia. Pat lost herself in the giddy giggles of her little gaggle all morning and well into noon.

Her school had broken up for the Christmas holidays and the winter break. She had a grand school party on the last day and her heart began to fill with emptiness as the children left. Phidashisha, a little three year old was the last to stagger out of the room with a bag twice her size. Phida ran back to Miss Pat and gave her a tight hug while beads of tears ran down her baby eyes. “Miss I laaaff you”, she said in her Khasi accent while her voice quivered as she cried. Pat’s heart sank as she saw the last one go. She put on the old fashioned lock to the school door and went upstairs home.

Her relationship with Juju, though full of passion at intervals, had soon fizzled away into everyday bickering. This second marriage to a much younger, boyish looking man, and the haunting leitmotif of a family she had left behind for love taunted her constantly. However, the many evenings of entertainment temporarily melted the jagged terrain. The creative décor of their cozy Assam style house, the tinkling glasses, the multi-cuisine and the host and hostess in their perfect elegance in perfumed rooms dispelled the darkness and the bruises of the previous night.

Soon, however Christmas fever took over her and she was polishing her wooden floors, shining her window panes and filling the pig intestines to make sausages. In the melee of the preparations, she often remembered her daughters in another part of the world. Would Christmas ever be the same for them since their father was dead and their mother departed? Was it suicide? Was it murder? No one could really tell. Her eldest daughter, Carol had arranged her Daddy's specs on the table the night before. It was just the same the next morning, but there was howling and wailing, and an eternal space in the bed. Carol kept looking for Daddy in the garden, in the bathroom- just everywhere. “Surely he couldn't have left us alone, he was such a loving father”, Carol innocently conjectured. But her little heart, could give no account of the unaccountability of death.

Ju walked in nonchalantly one afternoon while Pat was lost in her thoughts. Lately, she had developed an abscess on her foot and it had begun to sting with pain. She however continued to work and at times it bled and oozed. She asked Ju over and over to take her to the doctor but he kept putting her off stating guests as the excuse. They lately had fights over the abscess, which Ju saw as an excuse for her not wanting to entertain his endless bevy of friends. Pat had meek defenses to give in the face of strong artillery. Ju was often propelled into a rage and before long, his fist was in her face making her beautiful skin break and bleed at several places. Her life appeared so badly entangled, that even the thought of walking away appeared to have acquired an impenetrable complexity. She often melted into the past when she and Ju were so much in love. She remembered the love, the kisses and the light strokes of his fingers on her beautiful bare back. She recalled how Ju bought her trinkets which she adored and when she wore them he called her “my beautiful gypsy queen”. Was this Ju with the tough fist the same Ju with the mischievous strokes of his fingers on her back and face?

The mornings were difficult. Getting out of bed on a cold morning with a swollen lip or a bruised eye was unimaginable. Pat hobbled and went to the kitchen to begin another painful day. The abscess was stubbornly growing and looked a ripened fruit with its skin peeled out with the absolute force of its ripeness. She limped now and her eyes watered with the pressure of each stride. Pat had finally decided that she was not going to take it anymore. While she saw Ju in bed lolling about while watching a movie till late at night she shot at him. “Ju, I’m going to the doctor tomorrow and I don’t need you to take me there”. She felt that she was trembling in rage but Ju just pretended as if he didn’t hear her, switched off the television and before closing his eyes said “Okay man, big deal. Go then”. Ju was soon dead to the world while Pat pondered on the imponderables- her broken past and her simply unpredictable future.

Walking down the rough steps in the evening sun, her face latticed in the light of the bamboo clusters, she stepped on tufts of grass that revolted against stone and pushed their way through, as if complaining of years of subjugation. “Brave grass”, she said to herself, “Even they have the nerve to protest”. Patricia had lots on her mind while she made that mundane journey back home; a journey that she had made a thousand times. The foreign returned doctor gave his verdict: surgery or septicemia. Pat just couldn’t believe that she was in such a hopeless state. She had also been detected with diabetes. The party was imminent, the surgery was beckoning and Pat felt nothing but a sense of complete powerlessness. The winds were blowing fast outside and it seemed as if it was going to rain heavily. Shillong got bathed in beauty after the rains! Soft woolens caressed the skin and a stroll along the Assam Rifles Headquarters was ecstasy. Fields of paddy in the distance swayed in a choreographed waltz and droplets of water from a senior towering pine would act as astringent to your face as you were hurrying home after the rain. It was all quiet suddenly and then the downpour. Patricia hurried home on her wobbling foot. When she entered the house, all was quiet and Ju was nowhere to be seen. She was relieved and sat at the edge of her bed. But as she looked up and glanced at the calendar, she was filled with dizzy worry as Christmas was just a week away. How could she do all that she had to do and would Ju be as kind to her as he used to be several years back when he loved her Parsee chicken, and naughtily said that she was as creamy as the chicken drumsticks. She still believed in Ju’s reassuring smile and his strong arms. She knew that it would just take one night of passion to reverse all the hurt, but that night somehow didn’t come, or it came too often but instead of the hurt going away, it became just another occasion to hurt.

The frenzy of the party was soon at its crest but Pat was becoming immobile and imbecile in the tumult. She found it difficult to figure out what to cook, what to wear and what to serve. The abscess was growing steadily, and no antibiotics could arrest the outburst of runny fluid and blood. She still made arrangements for the party. With some help from few of her students who lived in the neighbourhood, she put up the Christmas tree- a grand looking fir, with glistening needles and creamy young cones. She had arduously prepared cold meat, dodol, kal kals, homemade sausages, and trays of colourful cup cakes. She had soaked dried fruits and fruit rind in rum for a month and was to bake the Christmas cake with brown sugar on an old- fashioned oven that day. Whenever the cake was placed in the oven, it sent out intoxicating fumes of rum, rasin and flour coalescing into hot molten lava which spread to every nook of the wooden house. The smell was heady and the flavor was unbeatably old-fashioned grandmother’s fare. She spruced up the wooden floors with a homemade wooden polish by melting candles in a tin. This raised hazardous looking flames like those that came out from the mouth of a fire- eater. Pat rubbed the melted wax on the wooden planks and with a Khasi wooden brush rubbed the floors till they shone and squeaked. Little beads of perspiration ran down her narrow forehead as she brushed the floors till she could see her smiling face on the planks.

Ju watched from the side lines as Pat made the preparations. He spent a large part of his time watching war films- The Guns of Navarone and The Bridge on the River Kwai being among his all time favourites. If he was not watching a film, he listened to The Old Man and the Sea series on BBC. He spent his waking hours barely trying to keep awake. Ju was stuck in bad luck for a long time. He had opened a school which didn’t run, he picked up a job that didn’t pay and now he’d married a woman who was much older and who was the only one bringing in the moolah home. He enjoyed the manna but was discomforted for the fact that it was being given to him for free. But all that brooding could wait, as Ju was soon caught in the passion of the big night! “Honey, I hope everything’s ready. This time Mr Hopingstone (yes that was his name) is going to be here and he’s donating land for my new school. We will have to look after him very well”. Mr Hopingstone was the local MLA there and a good-for-nothing fellow. He understood only the language of the bottle. Pat thought to herself sarcastically, “I remember him romancing the bottle the last time he was here- this time too it’s going to be encore!” Pat liked only a few of Ju’s friends and towards the rest of them she felt a sort of angry distaste. Ju got together with them and cracked distasteful jokes even as he looked so charming with his sallow face and adolescent looking beard. He had a way with the crowd that made him so appealing. Women made a flock around him and tried to catch his attention with their fluttering lashes and flashing smiles. While Pat watched she often thought, “Juju was as charming then as he is now; the only difference is that the charm was for more charming people now”.

Christmas arrived, but the air was heavy with a strange cold sadness. Even though the lilting sounds of Christmas carols were all around and Pat watched giddy children all over the street lost in mirth, she felt a strange nervousness as the time of the party neared. She knew well that this time she wasn’t prepared enough and her ever punctilious self made her feel inadequate.  She also kept going back to the past, reliving fond memories. She had her Mrs Dalloway moments when she quietly retreated into her safely kept cove of remembrances when every moment spent with Ju and every entertainment in the house was an occasion of togetherness. Things just seemed to have an inexplicable failure around them and Pat found it impossible to understand why. They slowly and unwittingly seemed to have begun inhabiting different worlds; while her catalogue of conversation was filled with Montessori methods and Kerela cuisine; Ju was more concerned about his falling shares and his closing school. They just seemed to be quickly drawn out from each other just as quickly as they had been drawn in.

The house was decked in burnished gold. Pat had put up the decorations with the greatest care even as her wound oozed from the rough bandage that she had hurriedly wrapped around. The huge Christmas tree stood glistening in the corner, in its yellow splendor. Gold dust covered the creamy cones while little Christmas wreathes, sprigs of holly and shiny wrapped gifts hung from all corners of the tree. The Little Drummer boy with his sad face was suspended in the air eternally playing his tune, ‘Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum’ for baby Jesus. Snowflakes of styrofoam filled in the empty green spaces of the tree. The lights were then put up and the little blink they gave out at intervals added a childish beauty to Christmas. Pat however was waiting for the most exciting part of decking up the tree. She opened the spangled bag and as she delicately took out the golden bells they gave out a muffled chime. Those golden bells which she had bought a month back just filled her senses with excitement. She stood on a tall bench with her oozing foot to put them on the tree. She however could not reach the top and in order to make it cascade she wanted to begin from the very top. She called out to Ju but he was nowhere to be seen. She called out again, “Honey, can you hear me. I need help, hurry.” Ju came in sauntering in a crisp white kurta and a faded pair of blue Levi’s. He’d always looked good in them- cool and well-groomed!  Pat looked at him with a longing smile and handed him the bells. He gently helped her off the stool and apparently caught the so familiar fragrance that she was wearing. He feigned innocence and quickly interjected, “What are you wearing tonight?” while twirling the bells around the tree. “Golden saree with a golden halter neck blouse and golden stilettos- no cut out the stilettos, my foot’s bad”, she quickly replied in excitement. Earlier Ju and she discussed and shopped for their party outfits weeks in advance, but now it was a mundane matter like paying a bill or buying groceries from a store-no fuss, no bother and no excitement. “I’ve fixed the top, you can twirl the rest”, he said with no particular reaction to the dress that she proposed to wear for the evening. Pat was known for her sense of style and her quick fixes for her dresses. On one occasion, the school in which she was working had a Founder’s Day to be celebrated, for which she did not have a new saree. She sat up all night and painted silver flowers on an entire plebian blue saree. The next day, she had the whole school asking her details of the designer six yards. That was how she was – innovative, expressive, and even erratic! She twirled the golden bells around the tree and then like a true artist stepped back from her work of pride and surveyed it with a flourish. “Quite impressive”, she sniggered. She had been limping since the morning and after this, she decided to lie down for a while.

However, by the afternoon, Pat just couldn’t gather herself to get out of bed. She was flushed with a high fever and her sore foot was numb with pain. She was raggedly dressed in a crumpled night suit with Winnie the Pooh smiling slightly sheepishly. Her soft hair lay in tangles and fell all over her face like a little child who was delirious. She faintly recalled, in a psychedelic dream that there was a party and that she had yet to put up the golden bells, bake the cake and…..She felt as if she had had a soporific and was in a slumber of a hundred years. Ju arrived in a while with stores of liquor and frozen snacks. He was taken aback by the silence in an otherwise buzzing house. “Honey, I’m back”, he said in his loud voice but was uncomfortable with the unnatural silence. He went into the kitchen, outside of which Patricia had only recently painted “Pat’s Lab” in fluorescent green. This was her sacred space but she was nowhere to be seen. The counter was crowded, and unfinished jobs lay scattered on its entire expanse.

The Short Story continues here....