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 The Rearview Mirror

A Short Story by Asha Francis

The white Tata Indica was surreptitiously parked at the turn of a mud road hiding from the curious passers- by who walked past the massive entry gate of the prison house. Anas felt a sense of uneasiness while he waited for his passenger. This wasn’t a usual pick up point.

It was an extremely hot March afternoon and he rolled down the windows to let the shy breeze soothe him. Leaning back against the seat he looked at the fading day through the windshield. 

The sky was the colour of jeera water; the gold sparkle from the setting sun seeping through the dusty windshield. He went back to the evening he first met his passenger.

                                                                    * * 
Driving at dusk always disturbed him and Anas was hurrying back home after that day’s work. He hated the push and pull of the waxing street lamps and the fading sunlight vying for prominence. And yet, that evening, he found himself stopping the car to pick up this man who was dressed in clothes that stood out. He was standing on the main road, waiting for a taxi, right outside the prison.
“My name is Anas, sir. Where would you like to go? “He tried to maintain eye contact with his passenger through the rear view mirror but the man seemed to look through him. Anas noticed that he was keying something in to his phone. Thirty minutes later he asked to be dropped off at the bus station and left with just a nod after handing out the fare. Anas rarely met people who shut themselves out like this and it surprised him.
                                                               * * 
“The railway station, Anas” the same man shook him off his reminiscence as he now got in to the back seat of his car. His clothes were still impeccable. Anas was yet to know his name but was surprised that the man knew his and number.  The sparkle in his eyes that popped up every now and then, was in place, just as it was the last time. The rear view mirror copied it all. By the time they were on their way out dusk had thankfully made its exit and when they arrived at the railway station there was a woman waiting for them at the entrance. Radiant! That’s the word which came to him when he saw her. The adjective was more for her smile than for her fine clothes. They were bound to a beach destination in his taxi which was three hours from there.

It amused him that even as a couple they conversed in silence. The previous solo ride with the man had never ventured beyond the very basic and he wondered if it would be different with the woman around. But his attempts to polite conversation were graciously sidelined. Answers to his questions moved from single sentences to phrases to finally, single word responses. Anas made his retreat.

The drive was drudgerous with narrow roads filled with potholes and a single lane traffic. The music wasn’t of much help. Uncategorized tracks from the pen drive sprung surprises, which, at times, felt intrusive. The soft hum of the air conditioner that kept the vaporing evening heat from outside at bay also kept his sanity in check. The couple, occupying less than half of the car’s back seat, became his focus of attention and the rearview mirror, his lens. They were an interesting pair and Anas was curious by nature.

It was certain that they weren’t brand new to each other. There was a familiarity about them that was endearing. It showed in the way she reached out to him with her hands absently touching his face while they spoke. Her face tired from a possible long day, still glowed. Her eyes shone with a warmth every time she looked away from him. His eyes, on the other hand, were always cautious. They did not give much away. When they weren't talking the man kept his arms familiarly around her. With the woman around, he was constantly gauging his surroundings, which mostly included Anas. The rearview mirror registered their communication.
“The sea has been our thing, don’t you think?” The woman was oblivious to the thin sliver of unspoken tension that floated around in the taxi between the two men. She looked pensive going over the past year and yet happy to be back with the man. They made a handsome couple; she in her late thirties and he, older. Anas got carried away watching them and the brakes came to his timely rescue as he nearly missed the Innova that was ahead of him. The rearview mirror captured the look of slight astonishment that the couple exchanged between them.
“It could take another two years. You think you can handle that?”
“I guess. It’s not going to be easy but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”, Anas was watching her pecking him on his nose. The man caught his eye in the rearview mirror and gently pushed her away.

The traffic was thinning as the night advanced and the steady stream of the head light cut through open expanses of paddy green on either sides of the road. Desolate like that mud road in front of the prison house! Wonder what’s his story! He dipped and flashed the head light at the length of the bright coloured houses which followed the fields. The houses had settled down for the day, all dark except for the 9 watt LED bulbs which distinctively marked every one of them. He and his passengers were beginning to relax.
The voices of the couple had, by now, reset with each other: mellow.
 “I have been waiting to see you” She kissed him on his neck. She sounded happy.
“…can’t wait to pounce on you” The man’s soft voice, excited.
The street lamps were a straight line of luminescence ahead of them yet there was total darkness in the car. With the light from the onward vehicles the mirror showed the woman with her head on his shoulder. His hand that was tracing her neck went on to play with her collar bone. The pen drive had finally run out of tracks. Anas welcomed the silence. There were no more conversation snippets but in its place there were long sighs and soft, deliberate sounds of possible kisses. His eyes were back on the road and he pushed the pen drive back in to do a random repeat play.
The energy between the couple had turned electric. By the time they arrived at the beach destination the sparks were all around. “We will meet you at 5.30 AM outside the lobby tomorrow. The sun rise is to be at 6.00.” The woman’s voice turned a trifle unsteady as she gave Anas the next day’s schedule. The man’s fingers were playing with her bare waist, lightly.
“Please give me a missed call at 5.00 AM, ma’am. I will be ready”
Anas was somewhere between the paddy fields and those long sighs when her call woke him up. Washed off the dreariness of the long drive from the previous evening and spent off the energy that almost set the car in flames, they looked in their elements at 5.30 AM the next morning. Anas was still struggling to open the door for them. Early mornings were definitely not for him.
The woman was chirpy on their way to the sunrise point. He must have been funny because he had her guffawing at every third sentence.
“Having come this far I want to watch the sun rise too. Heard so much about it but have never seen it before” Anas was at another attempt of a friendly chat through his rear view mirror. This time, the woman relented.
“Come along. You must surely watch it at least once in your lifetime” And she walked out of the car, hand in hand, with the man. He was still trying to wake up while they were racing each other to the beach.
The entrance to the beach was through a narrow stairway that went all the way down. The raised wall around it was a protective measure to control damage caused by the myriad moods of the sea. You could either stand outside the gate or walk down to the beach. The man looked safe standing on the periphery, leaning on the wall that overlooked the beach but the woman convinced him otherwise. They walked down the stairs a few minutes later and Anas followed them with his eyes; his thick-rimmed, square, black framed glasses now replacing the rearview mirror.
The sea was sheer magic at closer quarters and he dropped his guard and let himself be led by her. The difference was visible. The years dropped off from his face; the lines got smoother, his steps had a spring in them and he did not look cautious anymore. They were blissfully unaware of their surroundings and least of all bothered about being followed and watched. He was picking up shells that were playing hard – to - get on the tight sands of the sea. The pockets of his cargo pants were brimming with the load of them. She was gazing at him as he ran after those shells, as the early morning sea breeze played with his unkempt hair.

“I killed our baby” She said it matter of fact once he was back. His face was flushed and his hands and feet, salty wet. Her eyes were still following that little boy who was breathlessly chasing a crab in the sand. The sky hadn’t yet walked out of its darkness and the light wasn’t enough to see his face. But Anas saw him freeze.
“Neena..”  Anas noticed that he hadn’t heard her name before. The man turned her towards him and she looked straight in to his tear filled eyes. She had run dry, run wet, run everywhere with them that she didn’t have any more tears left in her.
“Why didn’t you?...”
“And do what? We couldn’t have kept it” She now cringed at her own callousness.
“You didn’t have to go through it alone” Her face gathered that softness again. It made her look ethereal in that light. “I am a big girl” She smiled at him and reached for his hand.
“I want to hear about it. Don’t shut me off”
“We will talk about it soon, I promise”
She was living through the experience all over again. A wide range of emotions writ large on her face, the agony of facing it all on her own, perhaps, the strongest.
“You remember how we first met?” Her sudden question lightened the mood.
“How could I forget? Those six hours in the bus, the fun anagrams from that day’s newspaper, the shared music… We hit it off instantly, didn’t we?” That day, he had left the bus station with a policeman in tow. Over the next one year they exchanged long handwritten letters with each other. It was more than a tribute to the fast disappearing snail mail and the red coloured post boxes. At the end of a year, their story had progressed and they decided to meet again. They both loved the sea.
“I still remember the way you walked towards me that evening after you spotted me at the bus station; lost somewhere between the imagined and the real. Those inked sheets of paper and sealed stamped envelopes turning blank and unsealed again as I rushed in to your arms!” She was caught in the memory.
It was a very private moment. Anas stepped out of their space and walked away from them.

“We were beseechers of time, you and I, squeezing out each minute as long as we had them. Once we checked in to the hotel I remember telling you that I felt the ticking of a clock within me. I was anxious to close my eyes lest I missed a part of you that I couldn’t capture before you left again. Waking up way before the day did we spent long hours by the sea, walking in a silent togetherness for as long as we pleased and sitting down in the shade when the sun got to us. Cold beers and fish kept us company while we spoke and listened. We were growing to be one person and not two anymore, engulfed in each other all through those days. The sleeplessness didn’t matter, the haze of time and space didn’t matter. It was only when you got away for an hour, every day, during those three days that I woke up to the reality of borrowed time. Late in the evening amidst laughter and teasing and soul searching we would easily slip in to each other’s arms, exploring, consoling and finally drawing strength from one other. Our last time there was different. Do you remember? We were totally nonchalant” Her smile was watery. “I didn’t know when I would see you next. The confirmation of the baby came to me a week after you left.”  He pulled her over to him from where she was standing and held her close for a long time. Neither of them spoke.

Anas was back now and he found a spot safely distant from them yet close enough. The sea was quiet, getting ready for the much awaited unravelling. People were slowly beginning to fill the beach. She insisted that they walk across to the boulder path that was laid out from the beach and extended in to the sea. “You get the best view from there” Her energy was infectious. He looked skeptical for a very brief moment and then joined her. They were among the first to walk the path that morning and as they sat down on a rock, at the edge of the path, with only the sea and the sky in front of them, the man looked happy.

The sky started its show of colours; deep bluish grey with cracks of light yellow and silver, splashes of pink and orange to the canvas as the play progressed. The big ball of fire was finally out of its sleeping waters and on its way to a new day. The man and the woman turned silent watching the spectacle unfold in front of their eyes. Sitting next to each other, her hand in his, they couldn’t have looked closer together. Anas framed that picture on his thick-rimmed, square, black framed glasses.

The young sun was slowly warming up to them. The woman drew patterns on the black sand with her bare feet and the man watched her, content. She attracted attention from those around her with her loud laughter. The man kept gazing at her fondly as he added fodder to her laughter. Their lives seemed complicated and it wasn’t easy to figure them out. But for now, it seemed as if they had buried themselves in the soft haze of the dawning day.

With the sun fully out, the day took on a different look. The soft edges attained a sharpness which was glaring. There wasn’t much time left before they went their separate ways again. The weight of the conversation that they had shared a while before hung heavy as they walked back together. Anas sensed a languid hurriedness about them; a tussle between the current moment and everything else.
Back in the car, the rearview mirror was back in focus. There was an audible silence that now sat between them, unknown to both. He moved closer and slipped his arm around her and went back to wherever he was. She caught his hand that hung from her shoulder. They sat together separated by their own thoughts. Little islands of thoughts.

Outside her window she kept following the sun as it climbed higher. The ticking of that same clock within her. Anas was struggling with the heaviness that was now inside him. He focused more on the road for some respite. The vehicles were sluggish, struggling to move along with the blazing sun outside. There were a few brave vendors on the road, pushing their carts of wares, tending to their business. The heat didn’t seem to deter them in anyway. There were three sets of thoughts converging to a common point; all of them their own islands.
She was the first to fall asleep and he leaned against her so she could rest her weight on him. Anas watched him look at her for a long time; a prisoner of his own thoughts. Somewhere along those quickly passing sights of the swaying paddy fields and the bright coloured houses, past his eyes on the rearview mirror, he too fell asleep. Anas took his eyes off the mirror.

The short story continues here....