FOR THE last eight years, each time I’ve strolled into my home compound, my eyes have almost instinctively darted to the balcony on the opposite side, of my building.
Sitting there, always, was my good old friend. He is 77 now, and possibly, the only friend, riding into the sunset. I still remember the one time he had stayed up for me, when I was returning from an ungodly hour at the newspaper, where I worked. It was 1 am, and he startled me, as he called out my name in the pitch black of night. “Jane, goodnight,” he yelled out.
The next day, I rang him up, and chided him for being so silly and scaring the wits out of me.
“I thought it was a ghost,” I had said.
“But, I wanted to surprise you kiddo,” he explained.
“No, please don’t do that ever again,” I told him.
I was angry. And, I still don’t know why.
Having said that, he and I share a different bond. Sometimes, he tells me the most absurd things, enough to leave me amused, and anyone else scandalised. I, occasionally, let him know, when he is going overboard. Once, when he asked, “Why I hadn’t been born 50 years earlier”, I gave him a cold response, “You know, we’d still ‘just’ be friends, right?” He never asked that question again.
Then, there were those emails, which he proactively sent me, once in a while, when he saw me, walk out of my building. “Saw you in a red top, yesterday, rang in the evening. Were you at work?”, one mail with the subject Red Riding Hood read.
Another read: “Waking from my siesta yesterday I saw you, grey top on black jeans, going to work, followed five paces behind, by your two brothers. Walking tall, you were dwarfed by them, but never mind, it’s all in the family. Take care kiddo.”
Sometimes, I would tease him for stalking me. “I am the untitled watchman of the building, don’t you know?” he’d say in feeble defence. “I don’t get paid for the job, though.” We’d laugh together.
The last time, we had met was sometime in mid October. He had seen me come home from work, and called out as usual, “Baby girl, come over, if you’re free. I am getting bored as hell.” A year before this, he had lost sensation in his left hand, and that had made him miserable. He couldn’t write emails or share those fine film reviews, he wrote for publications — he is a noted film critic and a former news editor with a leading newspaper. The vacuum was taking a toll.
That day, We had sat in silence for a good five minutes in his balcony. I was browsing through all his handsome, black and white photographs from his 30s. “Why didn’t you marry?” I asked. “So many beautiful women Jane…How do you settle for one?” he joked. That day, he also shared many stories about playing in the cricket club of Cavel (where we live) in the mid 60s and 70s. I promised to come back to hear more.
“Come soon, though. You know my mind… it’s been playing tricks.”
Three months ago, he stopped showing up at the balcony. Initially, I didn’t think much of it, assuming he had gone for a short break to Goa. “But, without letting me know? That would have been impossible.”
It was only in early December that I learned that he was now, bed-ridden and slowly losing memory. Yet, when I met him that day, his pale face immediately broke into a smile, “Jane, right? How are you, kiddo?”
That day, I told myself that I would muster the courage to meet him again – probably the very next day and every day after that. I confess, I waited on this tad too long. It’s not that I didn’t want to. It’s just that I didn’t know how to.
When I decided to see him again, two days ago, nearly a month after that broken promise to myself, I was ready for the worst. He would have forgotten me for sure, I thought. “Steel yourself,” I assured my anxious nerves.
It broke my heart to know that the man, who waved across to me from his balcony every evening and who’d call me if he hadn’t heard from me for more than two days at a stretch, would not remember me or recall my name anymore. It also hurts, because, honestly, in all these years of knowing him, he genuinely cared for me and I doubt, his affection was ever returned in equal measure. To this day, he hasn’t forgotten a single birthday of mine. I, unfortunately, cannot boast of the same lucidity of the mind. Even as I write this, I can’t seem to recall the exact date of his birthday. The last time, I made up by taking him to Starbucks in my recently-purchased car. He loved the coffee and relished that cheesecake, but he could not stop at how uncomfortable he felt at enjoying small pleasures in an over-priced coffee chain. I am glad that’s one thing we agreed upon. I promised him another date soon, but again, I reneged. My sorry excuse: work.
A week ago, during a chat over coffee, a friend had mentioned to me, how in every relationship there is one who is always giving, and one, who’s receiving. At the time, I had over-confidently proclaimed that this hadn’t been the case in my life, and that I had little to complain about the friends I’ve had and those I have kept. Little did I know, that here I was, doing not just as much as my old man – always receiving his kindness, but grudgingly parting with my own.
As I entered the bedroom, where he has been lying for the last three months, I could feel a wave of emotions, engulf me. There, he was, shriveled, smaller and nothing of the glorious, old man, I remember. I sat on the sofa opposite his, he darted a cold look, then, stared at the ceiling, and looked back at me again. “You finally came,” his voice was hoarse and incoherent. I nodded. I really had nothing to say. “I love those polka dots on your black top,” he said, looking at my shirt. “But, I think you always looked better in red kiddo.”