Next evening I arrived at my workplace earlier than usual. I had decided to meet Elle and apologise to her for leaving her party abruptly.
It was still early in the evening, but there were already a few people in the restaurant, sitting around the tables. Elle had seen me entering and she came forward to greet me.
I looked at her closely. She looked a bit tired, but happy. There was a glow of cheerfulness which seemed to rise from within and reveal itself in her countenance. I couldn't help but feel happy for her.
How could it be that Inna was so depressed when her partner seemed to be happy and content? Didn't they look into each other's eyes and try to read what was written over there? Or, had they already stopped looking at each other?
Elle seemed to be on a different plane, in tune with the life growing within her and at the same time, oblivious of the sorrow and happiness in the world outside her. She was moulding and nurturing a bubble of life within her own body and nothing beside that affected her much.
Perhaps, Inna didn't understand it. Perhaps, she didn't want to understand it because she was trapped within her feelings of insecurity and self-pity. I was at a loss how to bring my friend out of it.
I had brought a gift for Elle. It was a painting she could hang in her drawing room. I handed it over to her and smiled.
"For your new home."
She smiled back.
"Thank you so much!"
"Sorry, I left that day without telling you. It was just rude."
I apologised to her sincerely. There was something in her look that made me feel comfortable and friendly.
"I didn't mind at all. Bill told me everything and I understand the significance of that particular day in your life. It's Inna and me who should be sorry for not taking this into account before fixing the date."
I was embarrassed and at the same time, surprised. Inna didn't know about the date of my mother's death, but I might have told Bill once.
It seemed that he remembered it.
"Inna didn't know about it, so it's not your fault at all. I'll definitely come to see your house some day."
"There will soon be another occasion," she smiled.
I knew what she referred to and I congratulated her. Then I left for my show.
My heart was heavy with sadness and apprehension. I knew Inna was going through a hard time, but I couldn't probably do much to support her. It was like the lines of that song heard long ago:
"I built my room in search of happiness.
Fire came and burnt it away.
I waded into the sea in search of immortality.
All I came up with was deadly venom."
That night I had a strange dream.
I found myself walking through a narrow alley. Moss covered brick walls pressed upon it from both sides. The damp air smelled of decay and pressed heavier and heavier upon my chest as I moved on through it.
I arrived at a turn and found the wall half crumbling on my left. From that gap in the wall a plant had grown out. It looked oddly familiar.
A single flower lit the whole plant up. In that decaying chill it looked somewhat ethereal in its beauty.
I stretched my hand and touched it. One moment it felt smooth and dewy on my skin and the next instant something sharp and vicious stung my index finger.
In that split second I saw a black snake crawling through the crumbling bricks and vanishing into a hole in the wall.
I raised the finger in front of my eyes. There were two small perforated marks on it. Blood trickled from them and rolled down the palm of my hand.
The snake had bitten me!
A feeling of numbness started to spread out from the wounded finger into my body. My heart throbbed and splotches of red started to rim my vision. I wanted to scream, but no sound came out of my dry mouth.
I choked on my own scream and thrashed madly. A part of me kept saying that it was but only a dream, yet I couldn't bring myself to break through it. My consciousness sank deeper and deeper into oblivion.
Then, at last, I broke through it. My eyes blinked open and I squinted hard in the bright sunlight that flooded my room.
Oh God! What time was it now?
I pulled my cell phone out from under my pillow and looked into the screen. It was already well past eleven.
How could I have slept so late?
I jumped out of the bed and drew the window curtains first. The dazzling sunlight was just too much to bear for my groggy eyes.
I rushed through my chores. The memory of the dreadful dream already blurred in the glowing daylight.
The light filtered through the semi transparent curtains, spreading into the furthest corners of my soul. Just like my memory from that night when she held me close to her.
Misha! Misha! Misha!
Uttering her name like a silent prayer, mingling its every syllable in my breath…
Her cell number was saved in my phone. I could have called her if I wanted to, but I restrained myself. She must be busy at work now. It would be better to call her at lunch break.
As I was about to go for bath the phone started to ring, but before I could pick it up, the ringing stopped.
Inna's name showed on the screen.
For a splitting second I hesitated. Should I call her back right now?
Then I decided to take the bath first.
It was after more than an hour that my phone rang again. I had just finished having a crossover between a breakfast and a lunch with toast, butter and eggs, when the phone started to ring.
I felt a bit guilty as I remembered that I should have called Inna back a long ago. Could it be that she was calling me again?
I took the call without looking at the screen.
It was Bill's voice. I was surprised a bit. Why was Bill calling me all on a sudden?
"Nell? Are you at home now?"
Why did Bill sound worried?
"Yes, I am. What happened?"
"Get ready. I'll be picking you up in fifteen minutes. Inna has met with an accident. We have to go to the hospital immediately."
"What?? Accident? Where?"
"They called from her club. She's already been taken to the hospital. We need to reach there as soon as possible. Just get ready!"
Bill disconnected. I stared at the silent phone in my hand.
How could this be? Didn't she call me just now?
What could have happened to her in such a short time?
Time flew by. Bill said fifteen minutes, but he arrived long before that.
"What happened to her, Bill?" I asked as Bill's car hurtled through the traffic towards the hospital.
"She met with an accident at the swimming pool."
Accident at swimming pool! How was that even possible? She was such a good swimmer!
I was sure that it wasn't anything serious; that she would be alright by the time we reached the hospital; that she would just laugh at us for being so anxious for her.
I was so wrong!
When we arrived at the hospital the first people who greeted us were two officials from the club and a police officer.
And we learnt the truth from them.
Inna was brought dead to the hospital. Her body was found in the pool. No one knew how an efficient swimmer like her got drowned in a swimming pool.
I remembered the day when I had gone to meet her in the club. It was just before lunch and she was boozing alone by the side of the swimming pool. From what I observed I was sure that it had already become her habit to drink before lunch.
Could it be that she went into the pool after drinking heavily? A drunk person could be drowned even in a bathtub as excessive alcohol temporarily suspends our ability to swim. But it was not possible that Inna didn't know about this. Then why would she go for a swim after drinking heavily?
The police sent her body for post mortem. We had to wait for at least twenty four hours before the proceedings could be completed and her body could be handed over to us.
I had lost my voice. Inside my mind, I only groped for the truth about her death. Did she kill herself? A lively, laughing person like her? What did she lack? But then her face would float before my mind's eyes. Her hollow eyes, the dark circles under her eyes. Instantly, I would remember how depressed she was.
'Forgive me, Inna. I couldn't pick your phone when you called. Nor did I call you back immediately. How could I even know that I would never have another chance to hear your voice?' I repeated in my mind again and again.
Outside, I followed Bill silently through the hectic chores of formalities which were generally associated with such a mishap. There was also the tremendous task of informing Elle. I refused to face her. I knew it sounded somewhat cruel, but in my heart I held her responsible for Inna's death. How could she have failed to realise that her partner was fighting with so much depression?
Well, it was my failure, too. I had met her everyday all this time, but failed to look closely into her eyes. Even when I came to know how she felt, I couldn't offer any solace to her.
It was Bill and our friends who informed Elle and did everything that was to be done.
The reason of her death became clear next evening, when the post mortem report came out. To me, it felt like just the reiteration of what I had already known.
The report said that just before her death she had been drinking heavily. She might have gone down into the pool herself for a swim, or she might have fallen into it somehow. The footage from the CCTV camera around the entrance of the swimming area showed that no other person went there during that time. The police called it an accident and ruled out any possibility of murder.
"Can we rule out the possibility of suicide, too? What do you say?" The investigating officer asked Bill.
"I don't think she had any reason to commit suicide". He replied without any hesitation.
That was my opinion, too. It was an accident, a terribly unfortunate one. She was depressed, but not to the point that she would run away from life altogether. At least, that was what I believed.
We took her body for the last rites. She lay there on the stretcher, covered with white flowers and wreaths, cold, stiff.
Inna and Bill belonged to a different religious faith. The names by which we called them were just short forms derived from their actual names and their rituals were different from mine. But I knew everything about the last rites to be performed anyway.
Only a few seconds more. Then the iron tray would enter the furnace, taking her cold body with it. After that only a handful of ashes would remain there for us.
And I broke down there.
I knelt on the ground and gathered her to my chest, buried my face in her damp, lifeless hair. Dry sobs wrecked my body, as if some monster had grabbed my heart in its iron fist and twisted it again and again.
My eyes were dry. They only burned like hell.
I didn't know anymore what I was doing, but it took Bill to hold me and drag me away from her.
I had become silent after that outburst. From performing the remaining rituals till we came back home, I didn't speak a single word.
At home I just lay down on the floor in the dining hall. I didn't have a single drop of energy left in me.
Why didn't I pick up the phone when she called? Why didn't I ring her back immediately? Why? Why? Why?
I couldn't forgive myself. No, I could not.
I lay there on my back for a long time. Then I felt Bill coming and sitting by my side.
I opened my eyes and saw a glass of fruit juice in his hand.
I just turned my head.
I heard the sound of the glass being put down on the floor. Then I felt Bill's hand on my forehead.
"Drink it," he said again.
There was something in his voice which I just couldn't ignore. So I sat up slowly and took the glass.
I couldn't feel any taste, but I gulped the orange liquid down and put the glass away.
Then I looked at Bill closely. His eyes looked red and moist.
"I didn't know her much, and now I'll never know…" His voice was almost inaudible.
"I'm gonna miss her, too!"
And we sat there through the night, reminiscing about the one who had long gone silent.
Bill went back to his work the next day. I was left alone in the house to ponder over what I was going to do now. I had decided not to go back to my old job in the well of death. That place would remind me too much of my friend and I couldn't bear that. I was too morbid to gather my will and look for new work immediately.
I was shaken by Inna's unexpected death. I couldn't make anything of the turn of fate that threw a bubbly, carefree person like her into depression and made her so vulnerable. All I needed now was a reason to sustain myself, a target to reach.
I called Misha. Hearing my voice over the phone, she seemed to be taken aback.
"Nell? Is it really you?"
"Yeah...sorry, I couldn't call you before. There was a mishap in my family."
It was not a lie. Inna was the last remnant of what I once held close as my family.
"I'm sorry, it must have been tough for you."
"Can we meet somewhere?" I asked with a trembling heart.
"Umm...I'm out of the city right now. I'll call you as soon as I'm back. We can meet then."
Her voice was full of sincerity. It didn't seem that she was trying to avoid me. Still, I felt unsure.
"Sorry, I'm asking for too much, perhaps. Please tell me right now if you don't want to see me."
"Nell, trust me. I'm really out of the city now. Or I would have come to see you right now."
I could tell from her voice that she was hurt.
"S-sorry!" I blurted out. "I didn't mean to hurt you. Forgive me, please!"
She laughed. Through the telephone it seemed like the sound of a tinkling bell.
"Take care, Nell. We shall meet when I return in a few days".
She disconnected the line, but my heart felt oddly assured. Perhaps, life was not that bleak after all.
There was going to be a final ritual for the dead after thirteen days and Elle had insisted that it would be performed in their house where Inna had spent her last days.
I couldn't go there. I had promised Elle to visit their new home. But now that Inna was gone, I didn't have it in my heart to set foot there and witness her last rites. In the silence of my room I sat, praying for her soul.
"It is for the fragrant breeze to bear the soul away.
Into the eternity of Heaven above."
Perhaps, her soul would reach its destination in God's abode.
Time corrodes everything. Even the sharpest pain becomes blunt over time.
The days went by. Life slowly resumed its old monotonous journey around the clock. Soon, the page of the calendar had to be flipped over.
Misha had called me this morning. She had just returned yesterday and had to go to work today. We decided to meet in the evening after her work.
"Can you drop me at the crossing of Second Avenue?" I asked Bill as we drove through the deserted streets. It was a public holiday today and after 8 PM there were not much people out in the streets. The number of cars and other vehicles on the road had also gone down drastically.
There had been a squall of rain in the afternoon and the wind had become chill. Bill had turned the air conditioner off and rolled the car windows down. Chill wind came rushing into the car and blew in our faces.
How I would love to ride a motorbike in this wind! But my bike was at the body shop. It needed some minor repairs.
"Bill, can you drop me at the next crossing?" I repeated my question.
The car stopped by the road and I climbed out of it.
"Thank you, Bill. I'll return as soon as possible."
"Are you going to meet someone?"
I was surprised.
"How do you know?"
"You look happy."
Before I could say anything Bill started the engine and the window rolled upward automatically. Bill's face became hidden from my view.
I stood there for a few seconds as he drove away. Then I slowly started walking by the road. It was almost deserted. Only one or two vehicles wheezed past occasionally.
I arrived at the crossing and waited by the side of the road. Misha had said that she would meet me here.
A long time passed before she arrived. I had begun to grow impatient when at last I saw her walking towards me from the opposite side. She waved her hand at me and waited at the crossing for the signal to become red.
The signal changed colour and she started crossing the road.
I heard the roar of a heavy engine thundering down the road from the right.
But the scream caught in my throat. A heavy truck roared past, blocking her completely from my view.
A spitting second passed.
Through my blurred vision I saw her again, standing petrified in the middle of the road.
In a flash I was by her side and pulled her away from road. I held her secured in my embrace and pressed her head on my chest.
"There, there! It's alright. You're fine."
She trembled like a leaf in the wind and clung to me. I could feel her heart beating hard against my rib cage.
All this time we had only talked with each other like friends. Even though the air sizzled whenever we looked into each other's eyes, we tried hard not to acknowledge it. But the unseen barrier crumbled tonight as we held each other close.
"I'm here, Misha. Don't worry."