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A Man

By Sunanda Kesavadas in Stories » Short
Updated 21:14 IST Jul 30, 2017

Views » 214 | 9 min read

(previously titled Thief when I had posted this on Facebook)

 

The man had been walking for over an hour now. He was a day laborer and the past several weeks had been quite unfruitful with just two days of paid work. He thought of his wife working God knew how many jobs just to clothe and feed them and send the children to school. He saw her briefly in the evenings cooking their dinner, making sure the children studied and ate. She tucked them in bed and then ran over to the bank employees’ colony where she washed dishes in five households. By the time she came back it was all she could do to not topple over from exhaustion.

Today was Sunday. The only day his wife was at home. He had left her and the kids after a glass of tea. That had been his breakfast. He had to go to the ration shop tomorrow to get the rice and wheat flour. Not that both items would ever be available on the same day but his neighborhood grapevine seemed to think that this Monday was going to be an exception.

On Sundays, sometimes people would have some heavy cleaning jobs for him. Before the accident he had worked steadily with a building contractor. The contractor liked him. He was a good worker and did everything with the kind of meticulous attention that watch makers might have. The contractor had told him keep working like this and I will make you supervisor someday. His wife used to wear flowers in her hair then, he remembered suddenly. And she used to laugh and tell wonderful stories to their children.

The accident broke his arms in half a dozen places, his left foot was crushed to pulp and although the contractor was kind enough to pay for the surgeries and the physiotherapy, he couldn’t give him the kind of work he had given previously. He had tried to work as a peon in the contractor’s office but with the limp, he couldn’t carry tea trays without spilling them. He walked so slowly the tea was cold by the time it reached people. Once someone handed him a heap of files and the pile was so awkward they just slipped out of his useless fingers. The contractor gave him a generous amount of money and asked him to leave. That had been months ago. His wife deposited the money and the interest supplemented her income nicely. Then one day, while cleaning the roof at one of the houses in the village, he fell down and broke his arm again. His wife broke the deposit.

It was only ten in the morning but the sun was shining hot and bright. He shielded his eyes and wished he could find a shady place to sit down in. But at this end of the village, the houses were few and far between and he could really use a glass of water. There were only coconut palms here, affording little shade.  Also, this was the Christian quarter and most people would be at church. I’ll go to the Mathews place he decided. They had a large yard that needed to be cleaned regularly. I’ll wait till they come home from church. The old man was never ungenerous.

He passed a small house on the way. He seemed to think of something; he doubled back. He had been there before once.  The house had been empty for a few years and then one day a neighbor had told him that there was cleaning work to be done at the house. It had been last year in September or thereabouts. The days weren’t as hot then.

He had seen the new owners briefly when they had come out to the verandah to survey the clearing of the grounds. He had been toiling for at least three hours clearing the weeds meticulously. The woman, her greying hair pulled back in a ponytail and dressed in a blue frock, had brought out a tray with a large pot and several paper cups. She had handed the tray to the mistry. It was simple fare. Hot tea and Marie biscuits but the man remembered the kindness on the old woman’s face as she spoke to the mistry.

She was joined by her husband after a few moments. He came to stand beside her and said something. He must have said it quite softly because no one could hear anything. The woman’s smile stiffened and something in her eyes changed. The couple went inside and at the end of the day only the husband came out to talk to the mistry.

The man now stood at the gate and surveyed the house. There were weeds in the grass and the rose bushes needed trimming. Were the folks at church? On the verandah, he could make out tea things laid out on a small table. He could see biscuits on a tray and a teapot. Surely these folks were home. He walked up the path and stopped at the steps. He called out and sat down on the top step to wait. He was hungry. He was nearly always hungry nowadays but the proximity to food turned his mind to this fact. He wished the folks would come out. They were probably out back.

He hesitated, and then stood up. The door seemed open. Surely, he could open it and walk through the house to the back. People around here knew him. He paused at the table. It appeared as if the old couple had been having a late breakfast. Two pieces of toast were lying on a plate next to the biscuits. A jam bottle was open in the center of the table, the butter knife coated with sticky sweetness resting across the open top.

He thought of his own “breakfast”. He had gulped down the tea while his wife had fussed over the children, studiously avoiding eye contact with him. When she had accidentally brushed against him, in the cramped kitchen he had watched without emotion as she had recoiled with a shudder – only then her eyes had flared and caught his own for a brief moment before sliding away.

So, she couldn’t even look at him now. Not that she didn’t care for him – she made his meals, made sure his clothes were clean but they never talked anymore. He lay awake nights, watching her sleep the sleep of the utterly exhausted, the small, warm bodies of their children firmly wedged between them.

His fingers hovered over the biscuits now. He took two. He put one back. He put the other down as well. Outside the front door, he removed his rubber slippers. He pushed open the door and walked into the drawing room. It was a pleasantly done up house – not very fussy, some furniture, a few pictures on the wall, a nice carpet on the floor. He couldn’t hear anyone.

The house was on a single level and he had to pass all the rooms to get to the back door through the kitchen. No one was in the bedroom. He called out again. He would have walked past the bedroom had he not seen the wallet on the bed. It was open, as if it’s owner had thrown it down casually. He could see the notes. There were quite a few. He turned his face away. He looked at the money again. He went in and stood looking down at the wallet. His fingers grazed the crisp notes. That was when he heard the sound of running water. Startled, his first thought was to run. Something stopped him.

The noise was coming from the kitchen. That was the only sound. No human voices, no sound of utensils. Surely the people had forgotten to close the sink tap. He walked to the door slowly, his bare feet making no noise. His hand went to the handle and turned it. Something cold touched his toes. He jumped a little. Looking down he could see water seeping out from under the door. He opened the door.

Sure enough the tap was running. The water had flowed over the dishes in the sink and was spilling onto the floor. His eyes followed the flow of water and came to rest at a small pool on the floor. The old woman must have fallen down dead. She was lying face down, arms extended towards the sink. The back of her head was missing.

The man gagged as his eyes continued their journey and took in the rest of the room. A small dining table and two chairs and on one of the chairs an old man was sitting. Or what was left of the man. Half his face was missing. A rifle lay on the floor near the back door, as if thrown there. The water was flowing out that way too. There was not much blood; the water had taken care of that.

The man just managed to stop himself from emptying his stomach. The old man had shot his wife and then shot himself. Had he just walked into the kitchen with the rifle while the wife was washing the dishes? How? Why? God knew why? A quarrel, perhaps? But to shoot someone. God! He had to get out now. He limped to the door and yanked it open, pausing for a millisecond to look over his shoulder. He wished he hadn’t.

The man pulled the door closed and rushed out of the house, hobbling as fast as he could. He barely managed not to fall down the verandah steps. Then he rushed down the path and turned to the left. He’d go to the Mathews place. He could only hope no one was there. He would tell them he had been waiting for a couple of hours.

The gate was open at the Mathews place, but no cars were parked on the driveway. The dogs barked at him from the run wire along the length of the yard. They rushed up and down but the leashes were just long enough to let them run freely along the wire without throttling them. They couldn’t reach the driveway.

The man hurried over to the steps and sat down panting and sweating. He wiped the sweat from his face and neck. Just as his breath slowed, he heard the cars turn into the driveway. People got out of the cars and old man Mathews called out to him. You have come on the right day. The attic needs to be cleaned. And we have some work for the rest of the week as well. Granddaughter’s engagement is just ten days away. Come along, come along. The man got up with a smile on his face and started after the owner of the house. He stopped at the front door. His heart skipped a beat.

He had forgotten his slippers at the other house.

 

 

 

 

 

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Disclaimer: I don't own the image used for this story.

 

 

 

 

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Aditya 02-Aug-2017 12:33

Engaging...

Kalamwali 16-Aug-2017 11:26

Whoaaaa!!

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