A Walk on the Beach

Maria opened the main door of her house, let out a loud cry and rushed towards the beach. She was all of 23 years of age and for the first time she experienced freedom in it’s true sense. Onlookers stared at her wondering what had happened to this otherwise quiet shy girl. With her arms flailing, jumping and dancing, she ran towards the beach and into the edges of the sea. 

When Maria got up in the morning, she found a note besides her bed from her father. Surprised and alarmed, she opened it quickly with nervous fingers. The note read,” Dear Maria. I am leaving. Not going to return. Do not come searching for me. Left some money on the kitchen counter for you. Live your life – Father.” She put on her slippers and rushed downstairs to the kitchen. She found a thick wad of notes on the kitchen counter. She ran into her father’s bedroom. It was empty except for the old rickety cot with the thinnest rag like mattress. His trademark hat and the worn out  leather overcoat was missing from the peg. She looked under his cot. The old trunk beneath  it was untouched. She assumed he must have just bundled his bare essentials into an old bedsheet and left.

 She sat stumped on his bed for a moment and when the realisation dawned that he had actually left, she smiled with exhilaration and jumped up with joy. She is free, actually free. There was no sorrow, no emotions for her father. In fact a sense of relief coursed through her veins. She was all alone in the world now except for an old aunt who was bedridden and appeared almost a century old. 

After the first flush of excitement, she returned from the beach and walked towards her home. She was glad that at least she had a shelter over her head. From a distance she could see her house. It was one of the oldest and probably the smallest cottage in the village. It was also secluded from the rest of the mainstream as if not to invite any untoward attention towards it. She pushed open the door and sat on the kitchen stool. She let the stark reality of the situation sink in before she got up to make coffee for herself.

Her eyes went towards the wad of notes. She wondered how her father had got hold of all this money. She bolted the door firmly, drew the curtains and went upstairs to her bedroom to count it. The notes were old and filthy as if it was hidden deep inside a crevice or under a heap of mud. She carefully opened the bundle and started counting the money. She gasped at the sheer amount she had in hand, fifty thousand. She had never seen more than five hundred rupees at one time in her life. Where did this money come from? Did  her father rob it? Will the police come and arrest her? Was there a knock at the door or was she imagining it? Maria jumped out with fear when she heard a louder knock. She quickly hid the money in her cupboard, locked it firmly and went down.

It was her old neighbour aunty who would drop in sometimes to chat up with Maria. She welcomed her inside , glad at the distraction it offered her at that time. She couldn’t confide anything  to anyone now. She had to wait for a few days to make sure her father doesn’t return anytime soon. She made another cup of coffee and sat with the old lady discussing mundane topics of the village. But her mind was preoccupied with her father’s sudden disappearance and about her future. As soon as her guest went, Maria bolted the door firmly , put off the lights and went up to her bedroom. 

She took out the money and counted it once more. It was really fifty thousand. Maria felt like a rich queen. Never mind from where her father got  the money , what mattered right now was that it was in her possession and it was totally hers. Her mind was racing and she planned her next course of action. She decided she would visit her old aunt  who was the only family she had and tell her about her father. She would not disclose anything about the money yet. She didn’t want to rouse any suspicion about it. It has to remain a topmost secret. But on second thoughts she realised that only aunt Jeannie could help her. She had to place her trust on her aunt. 

The next day Maria took out a small amount of money from the bundle, put it in one of the inner pockets of her purse and set off to visit her aunt. It was a long time since she had visited her.  Before that she made sure the money was well hidden in one of the secret compartments  in the old antique cupboard which belonged to her great grandmother. Her aunt lived alone with a maid who looked after all her needs. In spite of her age, her aunt was alert with a sharp mind and keen eyesight. 

Maria loved her Aunt Jennie. She was her mother’s older sister. Maria’s  mother was the youngest of five siblings. Except for this aunt, all had passed away due to sickness or some infirmity. As she sat in the bus, Maria’s mind wandered to her mother. She didn’t have much memories of her as she was only two years of age when her mother left her. Aunt Jeannie always told her that she was a mirror image of her mother. She showed her photographs of the family when they were young. Maria grew up believing that she resembled her mother.

 As she grew older she heard stories about her mother from her aunt Jeannie. Her aunt told her that her mother was the most beautiful and attractive girl in the whole village. But she was also wild and tempestuous in nature and that was the main difference between both of  them. Maria was very soft spoken and gentle compared to her vivacious mother. Music was her mother’s passion to which the family greatly objected. Maria learnt that her mother had secretly joined a musical group and would quietly slip away in the middle of the night to practice with her band. She was bold and broke all traditions of the devout Christian household. 

It was one Christmas night that her mother eloped with her father who belonged to one of the musical bands who had come to perform in their village. Not a single person in the village got a whiff of their affair and how they managed to keep it a secret was a mystery. She was only eighteen when she made this courageous act and the family immediately disowned her for bringing disgrace to the family and the entire village.

Maria’s aunt further revealed that for five years after the elopement there was absolutely no news about them. Then all of a sudden they made their appearance in a dishevelled state one cold winter night. Maria’s mother was pregnant with her and they both looked like completely lost souls. The family was deeply distressed on seeing the sad state of their daughter and readily accepted them with open arms. Maria was born soon thereafter and everyone was normal and happy in their lives. Maria’s father got a job as a music teacher in a local school and everything was smooth and perfect. But after a year everyone could sense the restlessness in her mother. She was a vagabond by nature and restless in spirit. She withdrew from everyone, neglected her domestic duties including her child and started throwing tantrums at the slightest provocation. Everyone tried their best to reason out with her but she was rude and arrogant. And again one fine day she just disappeared from their lives. They tried their best to trace her but it seemed like she had completely vanished like magic.

The episode was too shocking for the old parents and they too passed away in close succession completely grief stricken. Her father became morose and withdrawn. One by one the siblings parted ways except for Aunt Jeannie who stayed behind to look after poor child Maria. But her father took to drinking and became violent and abusive. No one mentioned her mother in front of him. She was dead for the family. When the situation became worse, there was no choice for Aunt Jeannie except to leave Maria in her father’s care and leave the house. Her father did not allow anyone  in the house except for Aunt Jeannie who actually bulldozed her way into it once a month. It was because of Aunt Jeannie’s insistence that her father enrolled her in the local school. But he would drop her and bring her back. Her first doll, her first drawing book, colours, story book were all thanks to her aunt. She had few friends in school but she was not allowed to interact with them outside it. 

Maria could study only till the twelfth standard. After that she would have to go to the city for further studies. But her father put his foot down and forbade her to go out of the house. She was now eighteen and was a replica of her beautiful mother. She reminded him of his wife who deserted both of them and was convinced that Maria would do the same. Even Aunt Jeannie was unsuccessful in convincing her father to let Maria stay with her and complete her graduation. In fact there was a heated argument between them with Aunt Jeannie walking off in a huff saying she will never step foot in that house again. 

Maria grew all lonely and isolated in the house. She kept herself busy with household chores and knitting and stitching which luckily her aunt had taught her. She loved her father but also feared him greatly. She was meek and timid and obedient towards her father. Her favourite corner was sitting near her bedroom window and looking out at the beach. Her father had forbidden her to go to the beach where men, women, children and thousands of families and tourists gathered to frolic and amuse themselves. She would sit there silently lost in her thoughts and dream about the day when she would go down to the beach and feel the soft sand beneath her feet.

Maria was so lost in her thoughts that the conductor had to call out to her twice to tell her  that she had reached her destination. She quickly came to her senses and alighted from the bus. Aunt Jeannie stayed in a modest little cottage but it was the most enchanting place for Maria. It was painted in white and was surrounded by a thick canopy of petunia and rhododendron creepers which hid the sloping roof. Maria knocked at the door and was enveloped in a close embrace by her aunt as soon as she opened the door. They stayed like that for some time in  the warm love for each other. The maid came in quietly to remind them that tea was ready to be served. Aunt Jeannie looked more fragile than the last time Maria had seen her.  She looked delicate and frail but had robust energy and enthusiasm about her. After they had settled down, Maria told her about her father’s departure. Aunt Jeannie looked shocked for a moment and then without a moment’s hesitation blurted out ” Good riddance. Very good he is out of our lives. Now you can breathe freely.” Maria hesitated for a moment before disclosing about the money her father had left her.

Aunt Jeannie gasped when she heard the amount of money left to Maria. But she soon recovered from the shock and started laughing. Maria was wondering at her Aunt’s reaction when she told her that her father must have sold all her mother’s jewellery which was in his custody or the plot of land a little away from the village. It was otherwise impossible for him to get this amount of money. But she was glad that at least he had the heart to think about his daughter before abandoning her. They sat together and discussed  the future of Maria. She counselled Maria about the various opportunities and possibilities regarding her life. She told her to take some time off and think very carefully before deciding on anything. Maria felt relieved of some burden that was weighing on her mind and she returned  from Aunt Jeannie’s home in a more positive frame of mind.

Maria felt more confident and excited thinking about her future.  She was a very sensible and patient girl and was in no hurry to do things. Her father could change his mind and return anytime. So she had to be cautious and tread every move carefully. She decided to enjoy her newfound freedom and take each day as it comes. Walking on the beach daily was her top priority. The very next day as the dawn broke, Maria rushed towards the beach in gay abandon. She wanted to witness the sunrise and be a part of this beautiful experience. The beach was empty except for a few stray dogs and some health enthusiasts who took their morning walk very seriously. She just walked and walked enjoying the cool morning breeze, the salty sea spray on her face and hair and the calm serenity of the place. She sat in one corner and saw the most spectacular sunrise of her life. She returned home promising herself that she would come back in the evening just before the sun goes down. There was something truly magical and mysterious about the ways of the universe.

A fortnight passed and there was no sign of her father. Maria inquired around the village and then decided to take up a professional music and piano course at a government college nearby. Music ran in her blood and this was one of her secret desires. After she completes the course she could teach music in one of the local schools. Maria was a simple girl with simple needs and desires. She now didn’t have the heart to leave her ancestral home and go to the city or even stay with her aunt. In fact she requested her Aunt Jeannie to come and stay with her. But her aunt politely declined the offer and told her she’s happy in her own home. Maria didn’t pursue the matter but kept her promise of visiting her every month. 

Maria of course kept her promise with the beach. She didn’t miss a single sunrise or sunset. She became a familiar face on the beach and people smiled at her. She smiled back shyly at first and then after a few days befriended many of them. Maria sat with some of the families and played with their children. She wanted to regain her lost childhood with them. She longed to have friends of her own age and craved for company. She was particularly fond of two girls of her age who did not miss even one of their gruelling training routines  on the beach. She mustered courage one fine day and invited them home for lunch. They were very happy and accepted her invitation. Maria was a wonderful cook and cooked a delicious spread for her new friends. She had a wonderful time with them and they praised her culinary skills. Maria was delighted at this new friendship and decided she should go out more and make new friends. 

One day even after sunset Maria was in no mood to go back home. She wanted to spend more time at the beach. She had never ventured to the other end of the beach and decided to explore. So she started walking and suddenly her toe hit something hard. She bent down to see what it was and was amazed to discover the biggest and the most beautiful conch shell. She picked it up gently and washed off all the sand from it. She placed it on her ears and was surprised  when she heard the sound of the beach and the waves from it. She was so happy that she decided to walk furthermore and search for more shells. She found many shells of various shapes and sizes along the way and gathered all of them . She put some in the pockets of her dress and some she tied in her handkerchief. She soon lost track of time and walked further and further. 

Suddenly there was a loud noise of thunder and she looked up at the sky. It was pitch dark with only occasional streaks of thunder. Maria looked around her in fright. She had never been to this side of the beach and was completely lost. She didn’t realise how far she had come from her home. She felt angry at herself for being so stupid and became nervous and anxious. There was no way she could walk all the way back home in this darkness. Even the moon was hidden underneath  the dark clouds. As she stood there on the verge of tears and wondering what to do, she saw a faint glimmer of light from a distance. She started walking at  a fast pace towards it. She even stumbled a few times and scraped her hands and knees as the way was strewn with rocks and stones and it was very very dark. She got up and started running towards the light. The rains had gathered momentum and was lashing at her from all sides. 

Maria saw a small dilapidated thatched cottage as she neared her destination. She was completely drenched and was shivering with cold. There was light coming from one of the broken windows and wondered who could be staying here in such an isolated and secluded spot. She had to take her chance, there was no choice. She couldn’t spend the night outside in this inclement weather. She banged at the door. She could feel some movement inside and then silence. She gathered all her strength and kept banging the door shouting for help. After a few minutes the door opened and she saw a woman all bundled up in a tattered blanket sitting in a wheelchair.

Maria couldn’t see her face as there was only one flickering bulb in the room. Maria explained her plight and pleaded to the woman to let her stay for the night. After a moment’s hesitation the woman let her in. Maria stepped inside and noticed that there was only room with an attached kitchen to one side. The woman hurried towards a cupboard and took out some old towels and clothes and handed it over to Maria. She then went towards the kitchen turning her back towards Maria to put some water to make tea. Maria towelled herself dry and put on the dry clothes the woman had given her. Surprisingly it fitted her perfectly. She looked towards the woman and noticed that the woman kept herself in the dark as if she was hiding from the world. Maria felt an uncanny familiarity as she looked at the huddled woman on the wheelchair. 

The tea was ready and the woman motioned her to sit on the only chair in the room. Maria was glad to sip the hot tea slowly letting it glide over her throat giving her warmth and comfort. Maria strained to adjust her eyes in the darkness and have a closer look at the woman. There was definitely something familiar about her. Maria tried to engage the woman in a casual conversation but the woman just nodded her head or answered in monosyllables. Then suddenly there was a loud burst of thunder followed by lightning which lit up the kitchen area. Maria saw a photo frame behind the woman which made Maria freeze. Her cup fell to the ground with a loud clash. The photo was of her parents with Maria sitting between them. She had seen a copy of this photograph in Aunt Jeannie’s house. The woman saw the startled expression on Maria’s face and came towards her crying out her name again and again. She removed the blanket that was covering her face and hair and looked up at Maria. Maria stood up completely stunned and shocked. And then crying  she rushed towards the woman, knelt down in front of her, embraced the woman and cried out in deep anguish,” Mother.”
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