It’s 2’o clock in the morning; too late to hit the bed, and too early to rise. Outside, water from tonight’s downpour drums the aluminum awning of my balcony, jarring my weakened ears.
There was a time when I spent the wakeful hours of my night watching the rains from across the balcony; now, I liked staying in bed, even if I was sleepless. Because I feared that if I stood on the rain-wet mosaic tiles, I would probably fall. Old-age had killed small joys.
My neighbour, this ravishing woman, loved the rains more than me. When we were kids, she would knock on our door on rainy evenings and plead and beg mother to allow me to come down with her.
“Aunty, aunty…Michael promised to sail paper boats with me. Please let him come,” she’d say.
My mother agreed, though reluctantly. She knew that I would catch a fever soon after, but “if the rains bring you both closer” she’d tell me, “let the fever be the sacrifice.”
“Someday Tracey and you will get married and I will be a happy woman,” she’d joke.
“Lady, stop messing with my son’s head,” my father would butt-in, “The D’lima queen wouldn’t allow such a union…over her dead body.” My mother always ignored him.
You see, Tracey was “aspirational”. Her father, Dr Ralph D’lima, was a renowned doctor during my parent’s time; one of those, just short of having a street named after him. His stories of bravado and kind-heartedness were told to children as bed-time stories. The local hero, he was most remembered for saving scores of dying men during the plague that hit Bombay in 1897.
Mother never spared a day reminding me how Dr D’lima had once made room for plague-ridden patients in his own house – much to the disapproval of his wife Linda – when there was a shortage of beds in the hospital. Mother’s brother David was one of those who had found refuge in the D’lima home. He died soon after, nestled in the arms of Dr D’lima – it was a good death, she claimed.
His wife Linda, on the other hand, was the local anti-hero. One belonging to the crème de la crème of the Goan society, and boasting of lineage to a mayor in the city, she kept to herself and never once indulged in empty conversations with her neighbours.
The only time she spoke to mother was to reprimand her, when she thought I had kissed her six-year-old daughter.
“Keep his filthy lips off my daughter’s,” she had warned mother, after she had seen Tracey scribble something in her Math book. “Michael + Tracey = Kiss,” she had written.
“Is this what you teach your son Mrs Coutinho?,” Linda had asked mother.
My mother was unaffected. In fa
ct, she considered it a personal victory and later, gifted me a chocolate bar for hastening her plans of seeing me as a D’lima son-in-law. “But I didn’t kiss her,” I clarified.
“Son, let Linda believe that you did,” she said.
￼Though after that incident, I really saw very little of Tracey. Except during the monsoons, when her devil mother escaped for a break to her hometown in Calangute. That’s when her father allowed her to play with me.
As far as I remember, monsoon is the only memory I have of Tracey. We sailed paper boats, and Tracey almost, always won. My boat would drown somewhere, mid-way, causing her to break into peals of laughter.
“Loser!” she yelled. I wouldn’t say anything in retort. All I did was to muster a smile, which I knew, kept her from teasing me further. But she got so nervous that she’d quickly add, “Stop smiling will you…I hate your smile.” That girl couldn’t even lie with a straight face.
Post monsoons, Tracey and I would behave like we didn’t know each other. When our eyes locked briefly at church during Sunday service, she’d put her head down immediately. Whom were we appeasing? Linda, I presume.
Then, in the summer of 1909, Linda suddenly vanished with 12-year-old Tracey. Nobody knew what happened.
A rumour doing the rounds was that Linda had found love again, in a local Goan musician, and the couple had eloped to England fearing wrath from family. Dr D’Lima never denied or confirmed the rumour. “It could be true,” he casually told me once, when I innocently asked him, while trying to fish for information on Tracey’s whereabouts.
Nine years later, when Dr D’Lima died of a cardiac arrest, Tracey surprisingly returned home. This time with a young man Luis and an infant. She had been married for two years. I smiled when I saw her. She didn’t react. Since then, Tracey has been living next door. We never smiled, we rarely spoke.
My mother, before dying, thanked her stars for not praying too hard for a union between me and “that Linda’s girl”. “She turned out to be just like her mom,” my mother said, “She would have left you one day…I swear on Jesus Christ, she would.”
But Tracey wasn’t anything like her mother. Why else would she stick around with a drunkard-of-a-husband for 45-long years. Luis died last month. I didn’t attend the funeral, so I don’t know whether Tracey cried. But word has it that she did. Her daughter, who lives in Australia, hadn’t come on the occasion. And poor Tracey grieved alone, I was told.
Why am I telling you all this? No idea.
Because had I known that Tracey would knock on my door a little while later, this would have seemed like a perfect prequel to the end, right?
“Can we sail paper boats?” she asked, when I opened the door of my flat.
“Now! This late in the night?” I was shocked, but could do little to hide the smile.
She looked at me nervously, her hands fiddling with the few lose sheets of paper she had brought along. “I hate that smile of yours.”
“We can go on lying Tracey….we can go on lying.”
Or,” she interrupted, “…We can sail paper boats
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