by Khurshid Khoree
Four days, four days I have been listening to the girl crying in the apartment next to mine. I told myself it was none of my business her crying in there, and if I had any sense I should keep out of it.
A young girl was crying in the apartment next to mine, that was her problem and nobody else’s. Even if I were to find out why, she would probably bang the door on my face, and how would that look?
Stay out of it Ansuya, I told myself. You got old and gray taking care of the guesthouse and its residents. Just do your job, collect the rent, cook and clean as you are paid to do. If she cries, she cries. What can a house keeper do about it anyway?
I went about doing my chores. I passed her door on the way to the other apartments back and forth trying to ignore, pretending that all was well behind the closed door. I had the perfect opportunity to knock on the door with a mop, broom and a bucket in hand, but I could not do it. I was afraid of being snubbed.
But why I wondered. Why would a pretty girl with beautiful hair and a body to die for, lock herself in the room from the day she had rented it and cry?
Dinner over, I was settling down to watch my favourite soap on television when I heard her crying again, right through the wall of my bedroom.
Well, wouldn’t you know it? Once a fool, always a fool, I guess. Twenty minutes later in my faded kaftan and a cup of coffee in my hand, the old girl stood knocking on her door.
The door opened a crack; one large brown eye peered out. “I am Mrs. Menon,” I said. “Your house keeper, remember me?”
You never saw a brown eye look more puzzled in your life.
“This thing in my hand is a cup is coffee,” I said. “Every new guest gets a free cup.”
That puzzled brown eye didn’t know what to make of me, but she did open the door a little wider.
I didn’t lose a minute. I took that for a welcome sign and barged right in like an army tank, which describes me pretty good, sad to say.
It didn’t take long to get cozy around her kitchen table with her praising my coffee.
“It’s Ansuya’s special,” I told her, “that’s my name.”
“Monica,” she said.
“Monica,” I repeated. “You are a pretty girl; you’ve got beautiful hair, and such lovely brown eyes.”
Again, I wondered what she was doing here. Her clothes looked expensive, her manners were good, and the suitcase on the side table near the bed looked expensive. Her shoes neatly placed under the suitcase were branded. She appeared to belong to an affluent family. So what was she doing holed up in this room crying her heart out?
After a while we relaxed in the tiny living room, with me over flowing in the only cane armchair in the room. On a table near to where Monica sat a framed picture caught my eye. It was a baby picture – a soft blue blanket wrapped around the cutest little face you ever saw.
“What a sweet heart,” I said pointing to the baby boy. Her face went pale. She thanked me and said he was a fine boy, but I knew it was something she didn’t want to talk about.
It was thin ice I was skating on, so I switched to other small talk, cracking jokes, just to see her laugh, and pretty soon we were friends again.
Well, it’s okay to break the ice, but you don’t want to crack it. So after a few more minutes I took my cup and saucer and left. Tomorrow night, I thought, tomorrow night I am going to make a pot of special coffee and something to eat for Monica.
I wasn’t in my place ten minutes when that awful crying started again on the other side of the wall. I wondered if there was a man in her life or a husband.
You can’t keep some thoughts from running through your head. It was something very difficult to let go. At least, old Ansuya can’t. And I wondered what I could do to stop that poor girl’s crying.
The next morning was a bright and sunny one; I was watering my plants when Monica came out. Only, this wasn’t the Monica I had talked and joked with the night before. She seemed to be in a daze. Her hair was uncombed; the buttons of her shirt were unevenly fastened. It looked like she just didn’t care about her appearance anymore.
She half walked, half ran out of the
building, and there I was in the garden and she passed by me as if I wasn’t there.
She rushed down the lane, crossed the street and headed for a stone building at the corner. She hesitated outside for a moment, making up her mind about something, and then she stepped in.
Now I knew why she had been crying. That building she went into – it was a privately run adoption agency.
That night I stood outside her door with two cups of coffee and a bowl of rawa uppma on a tray. I couldn’t knock, so I hollered, “Monica!”
She didn’t respond to my shout at first. I called out to her again, louder than before. Finally the door opened.
“Mrs. Menon – it’s awfully nice of you, but….”
“Throw me out later girl. But not before you try this coffee and taste my rawa uppma first. It is my speciality.” I said, squeezing past her before she changed her mind.
It’s hard to be sore at someone who is offering you a cup of coffee and a plate of uppma, right?
Pretty soon, she joined me at her little kitchen table. “I know why you come in to see me,” she said as she sat down. “You hear me crying, don’t you aunty?”
I looked away.
“That’s why you bring me coffee.” The tears were in her voice now.
“Ah,” I said. “What’s a cup of coffee?”
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. I reached across the table and took her hand in mine.
“You think you are the only girl who has ever cried, Monica?”
“Well, you are not. No, not at all. I don’t talk about it much, but I was alone in a hotel room with my little baby girl a long time ago. I cried, and cried a lot there, Monica. And no one bothered to find out why, or brought me a cup of coffee.”
Monica’s brown eyes were wide and wet, and staring.
“Have you heard of Big Bear Falls, Monica?”
“It’s a picnic spot in Ooty. My husband died there. He was only twenty-eight.” I talked softly. You could hear a heart beat; it was so quiet in that room.
“Times were bad for us. I had married against my parents wishes. I told him I was pregnant a day before. He was the happiest man that day, he could not stop smiling. We decided to celebrate by going for a picnic the next day. It was a bright and beautiful day for a picnic and we sang all the way to the falls. Ooty can be unpredictable. Very soon it began to rain and the rocks became slippery. He slipped and fell and drowned before help could come.”
Monica moaned in grief. Her face dropped into her hands.
“My parents had disowned me and I had no one to turn to, and when my baby girl was born I thought – maybe – with someone else – my Tara would have a better home.”
“Oh, God!” she said through her hands. “Oh, God…”
“That was many years ago, Monica. My Tara will be having another birthday soon. The twenty-third of next month. And I don’t even know where she is…”
“Okay Monica. I know I talk too much. There is just one more thing I want to tell you. If only I had a friend I could talk to at that time, and someone to guide me and given me the courage to face life, I would not have to give my girl away”.
Monica looked at me with imploring eyes.
“Right, I get it. I am leaving. Good night. I will collect the cups tomorrow.”
I left Monica that night, not knowing I would never see her again. Her place was empty in the morning. A note lay on the kitchen table, addressed to me.
Thanks, is all it said, and it was signed. Love, Monica. There was another letter from her a week later, a longer one telling me she would never forget me. The baby’s father had deserted her after promising marriage, but thanks to me, she said, she knew she wanted to keep her baby, no matter how hard it would be. She signed the letter, ever grateful Monica and son, and there was a penciled outline of a tiny hand and foot under her name.
So it had turned out all right. My conversation with her had done the trick. Ansuya, I told myself, it seems you are good for more than a mop and a bucket, after all.
So it was worth it, even if I did have to fib a little. And what a story I had spun. There would be lots to tell my daughter Tara when she comes home from college for Diwali.