“Is it already morning?” Ram asked. Sita was shuffling to the bathroom.
“My morning,” she said, as she fiddled with the doorknob, “you can keep sleeping.”
He watched her as she twisted the knob one way and then the other. She leaned against the door as if to push it, but not with any force. Her movements were slow, as if she could not hurry anymore, even if she wanted to. Such an imperceptible change. When they had got married thirty years back, she used to be so fast and energetic that even he’d found it difficult to keep up with her.
He heard her electric toothbrush whirr. She used that thing religiously ever since their dentist had warned her of gum disease. Now twice a day, it would whirr for exactly five minutes, as recommended by the dentist. Then after about eight minutes, he would hear the flush. The shower would then run for about ten minutes. Nothing changed for Sita – the same routine day in, day out, on holiday or at home. People could set their clocks by her movements.
The early morning light came in through the gap in the deep green curtains, lighting a corner of the room. The hotel was one of his favourites; luxurious with excellent service. Set amidst acres of manicured lawns, cherry blossoms, magnolias, luxuriant shrubs. Ram liked the lushness. Their room itself was large with a sitting area and an immense en-suite bathroom in the right corner.
At home in London, Sita slept most nights in the second bedroom – “You snore so loudly,” she said. He knew that she had tried stuffing her ears with cotton wool, bought ear plugs, and still complained. Then she started sleeping in the spare room, and by now, some years later, that is how it was. The spare room was her bedroom. But each morning she came in to use the en-suite. Each morning her shuffling woke him, but only for a moment. He normally fell asleep till it was morning proper. He didn’t care for early dawn with its half-lights.
Their house was large, amply set over three floors. It was easy to not cross paths. In the mornings, she spent an hour in her puja room praying and meditating with her Gods. He didn’t bother telling her when he left for work. The bells and chants drowned any other sound. He remembered the time after they had got married, when he diligently lit an incense stick before Lord Jagananth every day. She was the high flyer who swept out of the house before him without a thought of worship. It had taken years and some knocks from Life, sharp and hurtful, to get her inside the puja room. The room had changed over the years; from having a few photos of Jagannath, Ganesh and Durga, to photos and idols of every God known to mankind. There were some magnificent incense stick holders and diyas that she lit on special days. She covered the Gods in garlands and arranged flowers in shiny bowls. Hibiscus, jasmine, chrysanthemums, roses – all from their garden. By the time he returned home in the late evenings, she was already in bed. If he was ever in time for dinner, they would eat in front of the television eliminating the need for conversation. Then, there were the long car drives, the walks she went on; always alone. Last year, he had moved to the US for some months, to set a new company there, but she said she preferred to be at home in London.
He tried to stop the past from rushing into his thoughts. He dug deeper into the pillow and covered his head with the crisp white duvet, hoping he could fall asleep for a few more hours. Why were they still putting themselves through a holiday when all they did was keep out of each other’s way? The tradition of spending a quiet week every year in the Lake District or their luxurious cottage in the Italian Alps carried on. Maybe he wouldn’t suggest it next year. He felt it was something he had to do.
But his day was planned out and he felt a frisson of pleasure. After a full English breakfast, he would drive to the neighbouring village of Coniston. The gentle hills dotted with sheep, the stillness of the lakes, at sheer odds to what he felt inside. Faster and faster, he would plough on in his Porsche, till he reached the cottage he had rented for Pekka. Nothing around them for miles, their passion alive in the solitude. Once there, he could lose all control. Shatter the silence outside. In all his active thirty years, he hadn’t had sex like with Pekka. Wild, sinful, he loved every minute of it. She was almost half his age; so, it could be age which gave her the virility. Or maybe that was just natural to the Finns.
“It’s nothing to do with being Finnish!” She had laughed, “You Indians are just too staid, Ram!”
He protested, “Indians are not that staid as made out to be. And certainly not me!”
He was not short of experience. Sometimes he liked to think of the number of women he had slept with. It took him a few minutes and more than his ten fingers to count the whole lot. Pekka was a bit different, strong and at six feet just an inch shorter than him. He liked to playfully wrestle her down on the bed and feel her feet on his, their lengths a perfect match. The women he had before were usually smaller. Sita had been of an average build and very skinny when he married her. She had bulked up over the years. Sometimes he reasoned she didn’t look that bad, just a bit slower, heavier, sadder.
Sita now stepped out of the shower wearing a pair of jeans and a faded blue jumper. Her usual set of clothes. The times she had swished out of home in her tight pencil skirts and full white shirts, a vision of feminine proficiency and sexiness. Once he had dragged her back from the front door back to the breakfast table.
“My skirt will rip. It’s really tight,” she’d protested.
I will get late,” she’d murmured as he kissed her.
“Hush, just a minute, I will be quick.”
Those days she was ardent, responsive. The baby making ruined it all. She had turned into a calculating, ovulating machine overnight. Notes in her diary, checking temperatures with a thermometer. Once she had made him follow her to Copenhagen where she was attending a conference, so that those precious two days in the month wouldn’t be wasted. It was somewhere around this time – when she lost her confident self and turned into a snivelling woman – that he discovered he was still an attractive man. It had started with Sue, his secretary. One evening in office after a long busy day, just when he was about to leave, she’d stood behind him and slowly massaged his neck. She murmured about his handsome face, his straight back and his long fingers. He would have been silly not to take it up. They ended up in a hotel nearby. And that’s how it had all started.
He needed the release, the pure animal passion. To not think of what the outcome would be, when it would happen. At home, the mindless groping in the dark was followed by IVF attempts. Always ending in failure. Sita just couldn’t get pregnant. That was twenty years back. She had wanted to adopt, but he told her the chances of success was low. Being British citizens, if they tried from India, they would be given disabled or older children. If they tried in the UK they would be given children of the same ethnicity and since there weren’t enough Hindu children up for adoption, it would be a Muslim child. They have to raise the child in the Muslim faith. It just wouldn’t work, he convinced her. In reality, the thought of bringing a stray child into the house filled him with horror. Who knew how the child was spawned? Who knew what genetic pool the child belonged to? What a risk it was! Over the years, the hope and dream of a child was forgotten, as if it had never been broached. Their friends, now, had children who were of marriageable age. Soon they would have babies themselves. Sometimes, it felt that they had they had missed a whole generation, but that’s what made Ram feel young. With a twenty year old son or daughter, would he have felt as youthful as he did?
Ram and Sita, the golden couple, the epitome of a happy marriage. Her name was Sitashi, but she had been always called Sita. Especially, when she married him Ram, their relatives were amazed. A divine match! A couple made for each other. The Ramayana said so.
He watched her tiptoe across the room and let herself out, not even once looking at the bed. Not even imagining he was awake and watching her.
The minute she was gone, he darted out of bed. A quick shower, a change, and he would set off. Forget the breakfast today. Sita wouldn’t even ask if he had breakfast.
As he sped along the roads in anticipation of Pekka”s smooth soft skin beneath him, he wondered what Sita did all day. She had given up her job a few years after their inability to conceive. What had thrown him into harder work and greater success had done the opposite for her. She drifted along. She did other things – writing courses, gardening, charity. She wanted to be an editor she said sometimes. Do something very different from her corporate world.
Pekka and he were still smiling about the morning’s passionate encounter over lunch, when his phone rang. He didn’t recognise the number. It must be about work. His staff was efficient, but as CEO he was never really free. Fifteen years of hard work and his company was more than profitable.
“Ram here. Hello.”
The voice at the other end was crisp. “Mr Shastri, I am calling from the Westmorland General Hospital. Your wife has been brought into A&E. She is injured… quite a lot of injury on her arms and hands.”
“Really? But how did you get my number?” He was sure it was a hoax. Sita would still be in the hotel and there was no chance of her being injured.
“Her mobile had husband as an entry.” The voice sounded very impatient. She must have been expecting him to ask how his wife was and sound worried.
He told Pekka he had to go. She wasn’t sated yet, she said. They had plans to go for a walk and then spend some more time in bed. A nice afternoon was now lost.
“I will be back, OK?” Poor Pekka really had nothing to do in this wilderness. He had suggested this holiday at his expense and she had agreed.
He thought of Sita”’ hands in bandages. Slightly wrinkled hands, rings on almost all her fingers.
“They were seen by a cyclist, who called the ambulance. The car had overturned. The man with her is in a coma,” the nurse said.
“Man, car? She was in a cab?” he asked.
“Not a cab, I don’t think. She was with someone she knew, we think. She was in the front – her arm was sort twisted with his.” The nurse looked at him again, and then said discreetly –“Maybe a friend?”
He followed the nurse into the recovery room.
Sita was sleeping, her face covered with a mask. Interlacing tubes making her look less human.
They handed a package to him.
“Her clothes,” they said.
He fingered a soft lacy top, the blue jeans, and the faded jumper. He hadn’t seen her lingerie in years. Delicate, ivory white, expensive – bought with his money – but for whom? The man lay in a bed next to her. Rugged, handsome, his eyes closed.
The answers would have to wait. Ram settled down in a chair and thought of Pekka.
Issue 62 (Jul-Aug 2015)