THE FREE BIRD
Sometimes, she appeared a stranger to him—a complete stranger. This thought suddenly crossed his mind as he got into the elevator and pressed the button for his floor.
He was reminded, in the morning, when he opened his eyes, the sun was pretty high. He got up with a start and ran for the bathroom without bothering to look at the wall-clock. No wake-up shrug from her, no good-morning cup of steaming bed-tea. It took him no time to figure out that she had left for her office in a hurry. Some sudden assignment on hard deadline, of course.
The elevator halted at his floor. He stepped out and made for his apartment, thinking about her, wondering.
He found the door unlocked, unlatched and slightly open. Feeling exalted at the thought of being waited for, he gently pushed the door and stepped in. The hall was unlit and lonely. The only light it showed was the borrowed one from the bedroom. He switched the light on, and placing the brief-case beside the corner-table, sat down to take his shoes off. The slight commotion evoked no response from the other room.
He wondered, was she dressing up for the party? But instantly rejected the idea saying she can’t be dressing up with the door open. Then what? Relaxing after a hard day’s work? Gone into a cool nap? He tried to guess. Then he started calling her cheerfully. Approaching the bed-room door, he paused and had a peep inside. He was absolutely amazed at the sight within. She was at the small writing table in the corner, surrounded by papers, drowned in work. He wondered whether she at all noticed his arrival. But she did. As he got closer, her pen paused, she looked up and gave a tired smile.
“Hi sweetheart! You’re home?” She said softly.
“Yeah, it’s ages since I came,” he feigned a complaint. Her smile broadened a little bit. “Okay, tea or coffee? Or cold drink?” she asked.
“I need tea…and something to go with it, maybe a sandwich.” He spelt out his modest menu.
“Okay, you just have your wash and change, your things will be ready in a jiffy.” She said rising to instruct the maid. He felt a lot relieved to find her back.
When he returned in a crisp kurta-pyjama outfit, tea and sandwiches were waiting for him on the table. But no sign of her. He collected the tray and carried it to the bed-room where she, like Vikram’s Vaital, had returned to her place, at the table, in all seriousness.
“Must be pretty important, isn’t it?” He gently remarked. She looked up and nodded her answer, wordlessly.
“Won’t you join me for tea? Just a short break,” he sounded desperate to have her for a while.
“Oh never mind yaar. It’s just that I’m in a big hurry. It’s urgent you know. Came at the eleventh hour… has to be done immediately.”
“Okay, then you may just have a bite,” he said, holding the sandwich to her mouth.
She complied, saying, “And a sip too…” And she capped it with a cooing thanks too. He beamed instantly.
Satisfied, he picked the tray once again and made for the balcony, intending not to disturb her. They had grown a cute little garden over there and it was the most favorite spot for both. Roses of various hues were there in their full bloom. He had his snacks and tea in their charming, fragrant company. Even in the artificial light, they touched his fatigue away with their fragrant freshness.
About half an hour away, he slipped back into the bedroom. He would have stayed in the balcony longer had there not been a party to attend. It was time, he thought, they dressed up and left.
But she was still stuck. He started throwing mild hints, but she was too deeply engrossed to take any. Finally, he had to ask her to stop all that for a while and continue with it the next morning or even after the party. But she persisted, pleading inability to leave the job at hand. She suggested him to go alone.
He found irritation brewing inside him. Why, in the evening when he called her to tell her about it, she was quite willing, rather glad to join him. But then, she explained, that nasty piece of work was nowhere in existence. It happened to crop up uninformed, unwarned and upset the entire programme.
Through all their argument, she kept furiously working at it, using minimum of words, managing to maintain a gentle smile all the while, trying not to offend him. Ultimately, he saw reason, and agreed to go without her.
All through his dressing up, he could not ward-off a gnawing feeling—‘to have to go to a friend’s anniversary bash without the better half…what a pity!’ He felt all his cheer fizzle out premature. For once, he felt like dropping the party altogether, for lack of enthusiasm. But then he rationalized, ‘Doesn’t she deserve some bonus marks for her perseverance, commitment for her job? She obviously needs space and his sympathy to perform.’ But through all his reasoning, an unmistakable streak of disappointment, grudge at her opting out nagged somewhere, but only mildly.
“Okay honey, I’m going,” he said dejectedly, looking into her eyes,” but…I’ll miss you…”
“I know sweetheart,” she said, giving him a warm hug. “I’m so sorry, I’ve been such a spoilsport. But you know…never mind…some other time, I’ll really compensate for it,” and then she added, “And…thanks a lot…”
“Thanks for what?” he was puzzled.
“For being so considerate. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“It’s okay, now just don’t give me all this stuff. I’m most unhappy…but anyway, good-bye!” He said moving towards the door.
“Bye!” She waved with a short smile.
But the unpleasant feeling was nowhere in sight as he got into his car and turned the ignition on.
When he returned, it was past midnight. He unlocked the door with his own key and got in. The house was in deep slumber. He tiptoed into the bedroom. It was bathed in a mild, soothing blue light from the night-lamp. She lay there sprawled on the bed. He felt a sudden pang of loneliness. Everyone was asking about her, why she missed it? Very soon he got sick of explaining the reason to each and every one, and beyond a certain point, he started feeling grossly aggrieved and sounding visibly irritated. Some of that irritation, grudge was bound to splinter to her too.
He quickly changed into his pyjama, and after the brush, took his place beside her. Before shutting his eyes, he could not help a closer look at her. She slept so very like a child. He was overwhelmed by a desire to cuddle her. He did.
She stirred briefly and opened her eyes a bit.
“Oh, it’s you?” she whispered sleepily, “How was the party?”
“Great. But everybody was asking about you. Missed you a lot.” He told.
“ Ravi…Ravi called… to remind you about your programme with him tomorrow.”
Her voice was sleepier.
“Okay, and how did your work go?” he asked.
“Done…mission accomplished…now I’m a free bird…” she muttered feebly, lapsing into sleep.
Visions and words of the entire evening kept floating across his mind until he too went into sleep.
Next morning, when he woke up, she was not in the bed. ‘Must be getting ready for her office, with the work done, if she is not already gone.’ he thought vacantly as he left the bed. At the wash-basin, he splashed cold water on his face. He felt cool and fully awake. He put tooth-paste on his brush and moved towards the balcony. The next moment, he stood stunned at the door-step. She lay there, sprawled on the easy chair, eyes closed, luxuriating under the tender sunshine and cool breeze.
For a moment he thought not to disturb her revery, but then he could not resist. He quickly emptied his mouth of the tooth-paste and said in wonder, “You here? I thought you’ve already left for office…that big assignment last night…”
“Yeah, my boss was in great hurry, got it collected already. Right now, I’m a free bird…” She chirped, fluttering her arms like a bird, “Didn’t I tell you last night?” And before he could come out of his amazement, she added, “Care to join for a cup of tea?” She said reaching out for the tea tray beside her chair.
* * * * *