Love Actually

Latha Prakash posted under Retrospect Short Stories on 2022-11-17

Year 2000 Wispy clouds floated in the sky giving the blue hues a pleasing finish. The yellow light cast itself across the window pane and brightened Sunitha's face making her jittery eyes shine resplendently. She opened the bag and reached for a pocket mirror. Her dove-shaped eyes gyrated as she inspected the silvery tresses. They were meticulously woven into a bun. Not a single strand was out of place. With her little finger, she eliminated the speck that dwelled in the corner of her eye. After admiring her reflection one more time, she placed the mirror in her bag and stared at the tall buildings. The once barren lands inhabited by weeds now housed state-of-the-art buildings. Everything changed with time. The city that she once resided in, the people she knew and her life. Everything had undergone a massive transformation. The engine sputtered and her train of thought along with the car came to a halt. She looked at the high-rise building in awe. The frames of the windows were slender and had a metallic finish. More than two decades back, the land accommodated a compact one-storey establishment. Speckles of algae found comfort on the always-damp windows. Life had come a full circle. And the expected yet substantial change made her feel uncomfortable. 'Go back,' ignoring the whispers in her head, her fingers wriggled as she counted the coloured papers in her hand. She paid the fare and got off the car. Adjusting her thick-rimmed spectacles, she walked to the building. Displaying an identification card that was worn at the corners and a pleasant smile that improved with time, she stood at the entrance. The lanky man studied the card as if his future depended on it. A few seconds later, he handed her the card and escorted her to the door. He reached for a rectangular box with a translucent screen on it. "We need your fingerprints," he said gruffly. Wasn't she here for a reunion? Why was she being subjected to taxing procedures? The thoughts in her ticking mind ran swiftly and she inadvertently lifted her hands and placed them on the screen one by one. Left hand followed by the right. The man deftly typed away on the computer before guiding her to the elevator. The closed-door elevators made her feel queasy. She thanked the man and following the yellow-coloured arrow painted on the wall she began to ascend the stairs. She preferred the stairs over the elevator. Feeling every step, and every effort needed to reach the top filled her with a sense of accomplishment. Her footwear made a screeching noise as they clanked against the marble flooring. She opened the glass door and entered the room. A group of youngsters stared at the plasma screen while a man with an authoritative countenance, probably their boss, explained the scene. She remembered the days when they discussed the pointers on a blackboard. The squealing noise made by the chalk rang in her ears and shimmers of irritation trickled down her body. They were upgraded to a whiteboard just before she left this exciting world in pursuit of a world filled with love. His love. "Maya, will you concentrate? Women take time to understand and analyze the situation," the man's voice triggered the defiant emotions that were locked in an unused corner of Sunitha's mind. "You are better off at home with your baby," she heard him mutter. Despite all the technological advances, the bias women were subjected to remained the same. "We need the reports today," she heard another man holler over the phone. 'The impatient generation,' she smiled. Back then, they had to wait for about four days to get the reports of basic blood work. She inched from one room to the other while appreciating the infrastructure. The words, "Way to the reunion," printed on a board caught her attention. Striking her forehead with her palm, 'I would have chosen the easier path had I seen the board earlier,' she thought. 'Choices were tricky. One wouldn't know where it lead until the destination was reached,' her thoughts were disrupted by laughter and animated voices heard at a distance. They were all here. She recognized her colleague Vishwa's voice. Her hands quivered as she held the ice-cold door knob. Taking a deep breath, she let her hesitancy subside and entered the room. "Great to finally see you," another familiar voice made her smile. Every step she took, every familiar face she saw, alleviated her anxiety. It was her mentor and father figure, Mr Rajeev. With angst and self-doubt written on her naive countenance, she had set foot in the office for the first time many years back. An imaginary stocking that was filled to the brim with an eagerness to learn and the zeal to adapt to any situation was her only loyal companion. "Welcome to the team, Sunitha," Mr Rajeev had announced after glancing at her identification card. Not looking at her even once, he had gestured for her to join the discussion. Looking around the office, she almost stumbled upon a chair, as she inched towards the table on which photographs were neatly aligned. The sight of blood and the lifeless body of a young female in the photographs made her feel jittery. She partially closed her mouth in an attempt to prevent the contents of her stomach from cascading out of her mouth. "Sunitha, if you cannot stand the sight of blood, now is the time to exit this office," Mr Rajeev's stern voice had made her quiver like a leaf. She had received training on the same. But theoretical knowledge was different from facing the situation in reality. A gritty student that she was, she quickly adapted to those scenes that had eventually become a part of her life. Rajeev had taken her under his wings and he taught her the nuances of investigation. "Listen, observe, analyze and act," his words had become the commandments of her life. Disciplining and appreciating her actions from time to time, he not only transformed her into a better investigating officer but also a better human. A roar of laughter plunged her into the present. With a wide smile flashing on her face, she walked to her mentor and they shook hands. After a casual and mandatory exchange of pleasantries, Rajeev said, "I thought I would never see you." She stood with her gaze lowered and he continued, "So, how is your hero doing?" Words that usually flowed freely like musical notes seemed to be stuck within her. Long before, she could never stop talking about him. The captain had prevented her lifeboat from getting capsized. The anchor who had held her strong during the storm. Her man. Only hers. But was he her hero? Her knight in shining armour? "You left everything that you had painstakingly built for him. In a flash, you disappeared from our world without leaving a trace. Like you never existed," Rajeev's voice, laced with grievance jolted her out of her rambling thoughts. "Love does that to you, I guess. That was the price I had paid to love," she said without looking at him. Her eyes could never meet his. Back then with respect and now with guilt and repentance. "Don't leave. You can balance both the personal and professional fronts. Don't waste the innate gift you possess," Rajeev's profound words that she once didn't pay heed to rang in her ears every day. An uncomfortable silence ensued. A few minutes later, Rajeev excused himself and walked towards another colleague. Sunitha picked up a cup and filled it with coffee. She walked to the window and leaning against it, she remembered the day when she met Satish for the first time. It was a wintery afternoon. The warm rays of the sun pervaded the cool breeze. Sunitha and the team had reached the scene, following a phone call. "Saraswathi College For Arts and Literature" she read the words that were painted on the arch. With a camera hanging around her neck, she entered the Principal's office. They were soon ushered to the women's hostel. Partially squatting on the floor, Rajeev followed the droplets of blood while the rest inspected the room. Sunitha entered the room and took a closer look at the victim. All of the twenty-one, her eyes displayed the desire to live. Yet the slit on her wrist and the pool of blood in which her lifeless body floated rendered a different story. Rubbing her eyelids that twitched, Sunitha was about to click a photograph when "She didn't commit suicide," a voice interrupted her. She turned and his pitch-black locks that cascaded down his neck caught her undivided attention. His brown eyes conveyed an air of empathy and truth. Albeit the poets went Gung Ho over a pair of eyes, they never seemed important to her. Until that day. At that moment, all she wanted to do was swim in those enchanting orbs. "She is a meritorious student," the cadence of his voice drew Sunitha closer to him. As she looked at him without winking her eyelids, "She was.." his voice shook as he corrected the tense. "We are looking into it," Rajeev's firm words and his grim gaze jostled her out of the la la land. Without looking at him, lest his charm would stop her in her tracks, she followed the rest of the team. His persuasive tone continued to crop up in her mind again and again. Though Rajeev felt that it was a case of suicide, Sunitha coerced him to look at it from a different perspective. It felt strange. Someone had tugged at her heartstrings for the first time. That too in an unpleasant scenario. The walls exhaled a putrid odour but all she felt was the fragrance of love. His heart wept for the victim but all she felt was her heart thrumming to the tunes of love. Who was he? Why was she attracted to him? Before she could answer the series of questions that haunted her, "Let's go," one of her teammates grabbed her by her arm and almost dragged her to the stairs. "Where are we going?" she asked. "To the crime scene," he replied as he descended the stairs at lightning speed. Those words sounded like music to her ears. She followed him. Looking at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she got rid of the clasp and let her tresses flow freely. An hour later, which seemed like an eternity they reached the college. She was assigned the task of questioning the staff. A part of her performed the duty, while the other followed the directions of her heart. Her eyes scanned every nook but couldn't find him. She didn't even know his name. Crestfallen, she was about to leave the room when she felt a familiar aroma around her. It was him. She knew it. Her heart fluttered like a beautiful butterfly as she turned to face him. He looked at her, his eyes searching for answers. She walked to him and introduced herself. He introduced himself as Satish. The name that was unfamiliar until then got etched in the crevices of her heart. "Can we take a tour of the campus?" she asked. He nodded and they spoke as they toured the area that was shielded by a canopy of greenery. They spoke mostly about the victim. Satish informed her that he was a professor of English literature. She walked close enough to notice the ebbing and troughing of his chest. Her eyelids twirled as she heard him talk. Occasionally, his hand rubbed against hers sending a trickle of elation down her spine. She imagined his hand being enveloped around hers but the sight of her team leaving the campus shattered the fanciful sequence that ran in the fissures of her mind. "I got to go," she spoke hurriedly. He nodded and his eyes reflected a tinge of disappointment. That made her happy. Concealing her smile, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and rushed to the car. "When can we meet again?" his question made her stop. She turned and her eyebrows arched into a question mark feigning surprise all the while. "I mean, how can I contact you? Regarding the case," he fidgeted with his hair. Controlling the urge to run her fingers through those luscious curls, she handed him a piece of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. It took a great deal of willpower to not look at him as she got into the car. She threw her head behind her and tried to relax. She looked at his reflection until it grew smaller in size and finally disappeared. She felt something deep within. A feeling she didn't recognize. Yet she enjoyed every bit of it. Was it love? As if he took the cue, he met her the next evening at the bus stop. "Can I drop you home?" he asked. Before she knew it, she found herself seated behind him. The Chetak scooter seemed more comfortable than an aeroplane. Not that she ever travelled in one. That scooter ride was followed by clandestine meetings in restaurants for lunch and dinner. He had weaved his love for her into passionate poems. His verses vividly described her dove-shaped eyes and bow-shaped lips. He drew analogies between her smile and the pitter-patter of raindrops. In his company, she saw herself in a new light. His bewitching poetry left her transfixed. Sauntering in the quaint allies and revelling under the moonlight, they spent evening after evening delving into the hearts of each other.  A few months passed. During one such meeting, "I love you and want to marry you," he had confessed. Neither did he display a ring nor did he shower her with roses and lilies. There were no fairy lights or violins. Yet it felt special. She had been waiting for that magical moment. Without much ado, she nodded in affirmative. A simple and traditional marriage followed. Since she had no one to call her own, she quickly adapted to his family. It didn't take much time for them to become hers. Six months passed. One evening, she reached home late from work and saw that her family was waiting for her with apprehension printed in bold on their faces. "I was stuck in a case. I couldn't find a telephone. So I wasn't able to pass on the information," she spoke apologetically and rushed to the kitchen to whip up a meal. The family ate dinner in silence. An hour later, she stood trying to get rid of the grime on the cauldron when Satish entered the kitchen and took the cauldron from her. "I'll do it," he whispered. He lifted her in his arms and made her sit on the countertop. She sat watching him soak the utensil in a lather. "Why don't you leave the job?" he asked leaving her shocked. He knew how much she loved her job. How could he suggest such a thing? "Why should I?" her eyelids flapped in disbelief. He walked towards her, pulled her closer and said, "My parents are worried about your safety. I'm paid well. You need to relax. You deserve to live a safe and comfortable life." His lips caressed hers softly sending a current down her body. His eyes still had the same effect on her. His charm and eloquent words made her freeze. She loved her job but she loved him more. She couldn't risk destroying everything beautiful. Her love demanded a sacrifice. A price had to be paid. As though somebody pulled a string, she rotated her head and muttered, "Okay". A smile that concealed her sorrow, lingered on her lips. He lifted her in his arms, swirled her in the air and carried her to the room. Little did she know that she was shackled forever. She was a hostage caught in his love. Slowly, she had transformed from an investigative officer known for her willpower to a docile homemaker. Golden shackles embellished with love adorned her feet. Wings that once fluttered swiftly lay fastened to the confines of the house. He loved her deeply or so did he claim. She felt deceived. The emotions she once felt for him withered with time. Thoughts of unfettering herself had crossed her mind on many occasions but she shoved the idea of freedom under the carpet and continued to be a puppet in his hands. Years passed. They were blessed with a boy and a feather of a doting mother was added to her burdensome hat. She continued to live faking happiness oblivious to the fact that the key to her freedom lay within herself. A few years back, Satish's heart had stopped beating. His lips no longer waggled and his glamorous countenance that she had fallen for turned blue. She sat by his side unmoved. Not a single tear escaped her water line. Uncanny as it may seem, she felt liberated. The fence that pierced her soul had faded into oblivion. Though he never commanded her, there was always an unspoken caveat that told her what she must do and what she must not. It wasn't obvious to the world. But to her, it was clear like a crystal. She wasn't abused physically but was an everyday victim of emotional abuse. A subtle form of it. That day, she felt free. Traces of the tethers were engraved in her heart. But they would fade away eventually. With time and effort. A clank gave a violent lurch and she was back to the present. She stared at the overcast sky. Though camouflaged by the ominous clouds, a trace of sunlight found its way out into the open. That sight sent shimmers of hope and light down her weary soul. She sipped the coffee that had turned ice-cold. Her life had been shrouded by vile darkness all those years. But like that ray of sunshine, she too would carve a path for herself. Her hair turned silvery, crowfeet enhanced her eyes and wrinkles were spread all over her like arrows on a road map. But her resolve still lay unblemished. It was dormant deep within an unused corner of her mind. All she had to do was jog it. Holding onto that newfound solace, she walked to Rajeev. The paper cup almost crushed under the weight of her thoughts. "Let it out," Rajeev still read her mind. Her eyes dramatically widened in surprise. "Whatever it is that is troubling you, let it out," he repeated. "The condescending love that once blinded me now rests in peace. I'm finally free," she said devoid of emotions. Her eyes put her confidence in view. She knew what she wanted. After a hiatus, she was back. Back to being herself. "Why didn't you come to me? I could have helped you," asked Rajeev. "I loved him. And I believed that he loved me unconditionally. But his love came with terms and conditions. I lived a restrained life all these years. Now that he is gone, I wish to live freely. He made me believe that what he did was for my best. But when I looked at his lifeless body, a strange feeling of peace enveloped me," tears rolled in her eyes as she spoke. Taking a lung full of air, "I want to restart my life. I cannot undo my past. But I wish to lead the rest of my life in an unbridled manner," she said. Rajeev sensed fortitude in her voice. "How can I help you?" asked Rajeev. "I need a job. Small or big doesn't matter. Anything that would help in re-establishing myself," she said. His gaze at those silvery tresses was interrupted by her words, "Age is just a number." He smiled and said, "I'll pull in some favours. But I can't promise you anything." Uttering a silent thank you with her eyes, she walked away. Rajeev watched her march ahead with her head held high while a warm smile embraced her lips after a long time. Unlike the smile that betrayed sorrow, this time it was real. Pure and pristine.  She turned over a new leaf. She was broken but alive. She would rejoin the shattered pieces and not just pass the remaining days but would live her life. Opportunities may not pour in but she will clasp any chance that would come her way. Not everyone received a second chance. This redeemed life would be all about herself. She would live, shine, laugh and enjoy the good in every day for the rest of her life. Every end lead to a beginning and it was the beginning of a beautiful life for her.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!