It was an ancient wooden bench; the paint had worn out over the years leaving behind crumbling patches of green over a uniform dirty brown. Situated under an old tree, it overlooked the diamond shaped lake and the thicket of shrubs and trees on the opposite side. The bench was rarely ever used, hidden in an unused corner of the park. Somewhere in the middle of all the food joints and the decorated trees at the centre, there was a small bend on the main pathway just after it crossed the Gandhi statue, invisible to casual onlookers. The curvy beaten path was surrounded on both the sides by dense bamboo trees taller than an average human being. This path ran downhill for about three kilometres, by the end of which the bamboos surrounded it on all sides like a tunnel, before opening up into the empty space stretched out in front of the lake.
He had found this place by pure accident couple of month ago, and since that day he has been a regular visitor. Never once had he seen a soul loitering about in this inner section of the park. Most of the visitors concentrated in the tourist spots, and even the park rangers had forgotten about it, letting nature mould this place in its own imagination. Thus, the presence of another person that evening in his otherwise solitary spot was a big surprise.
She in her early 50s, wearing a white dress with matching white trousers and black flip flops. She had allowed the cool evening breeze to play with the lush black mass which came well below her shoulders. You could see the wrinkles starting to appear on her otherwise radiant face, but he couldn’t detect a trace of makeup. The only jewellery he noticed was the golden bracelet in her left hand, before her eyes overwhelmed his senses. Two aquamarine shaped pools, sunshine reflected off them like the ocean surface in the middle of nowhere. Bounded by crow’s feet, everything paused when you looked into those eyes, the notion of space and time getting lost in the twin seas of shining emeralds.
She spoke first, “Hello!” She had a cheerful voice, which send cold shivers down his spine.
“Hey”, he responded. Now that they had suddenly come face to face, he realised the awkwardness of the situation. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to spy or impede your privacy.” More than her, it was a justification for his own moral code.
“Oh no, no, no. No need for an apology, I was just looking at the view. Isn’t it lovely?”
His mind had been too preoccupied with the notion of another person in this place that he had failed to notice the sky, not until she pointed it out. It was the characteristic evening sky of these parts during the last few days of spring, before the terrible summer of the gangetic plains would start scorching the earth. The sun was setting down over the trees far away on their left side, painting the last few clouds left with countless shades of orange and red. A tinge of the purple night sky was already visible on the periphery of his vision. The air was filled with the sound of birds coming back home and the rustling of mango leaves in the cool wind. The lake had turned a shade of crimson red on the west, but the opposite side was still a dark blue.
“Wow.” He muttered to himself.
“Yes.”, she heard his comment. “This place becomes so much more beautiful around this time.” She seemed to be in no hurry of leaving, shuffling a little to create more space on the bench. After a few moments of deliberation, he sat down with a sigh.
“I’m Payal, nice to meet you”, he returned a limp handshake. He was finding her to be more beautiful with every passing minute. The complete disregard for makeup or jewellery made her seem all the more genuine, her smile all the more reassuring and her words all the more trustworthy.
“Hey”, he replied with a sheepish grin, “I’m…” she cut him off in the middle.
“I don’t want to know your name”, moments later she burst into a smile. “Oh, I’m so sorry, nothing’s wrong with you.” He realised that his face had already betrayed the emotions and turned it away from her.
Sensing his embarrassment, she stopped laughing. Both of them sat in silence for some time. As he tried to locate the pack of cigarettes in one of his coat’s pocket, she looked forlornly at the setting sun.
The deadlock was broken by her voice. “Please don’t take it personally. It’s just that….” She was trying to find the right words, “I find it easier to talk to strangers if I don’t know their name.”
“Makes sense.” At last, he found the packet. “Although, if you don’t mind, I have never seen you in this place.”
“I can say the same for you.” She gave him a look without turning the face. “Although I haven’t come to this place in a long time.”
“I discovered this place a couple of months ago.” his voice turned defensive.
She gave him a funny look. “And you come here daily?”
“No.” He felt ashamed of the fact that a stranger will make such an assumption, even if it were true. “As often as I can.”
Both of them seemed to have run out of things to say. He took out his packet of Marlboro Lights, selected one cigarette and lit it with the silver lighter. Then they watched the crimson sky as the birds come back home, two strangers sitting together in silence. The world could have ended at that moment and neither of them would have even noticed.
Finishing his cigarette, he stubbed the butt in the bench’s leg and cleared his throat. “So, how long have you been coming here?”
“Last 25 years.” She kept looking at the lake.
“That’s a long time.”
“Yes. Too long. Earlier I used to come here more often, when my husband was still alive. Not every day though,” once again she gave the funny look, “Once a week maybe. More so in April though. This place becomes…… magical in April.”
“Can I ask what happened to your husband?”
“He died a few years back. Cancer.” she waved her hands away, “But let’s leave all that. Let’s talk about you. Why do you come here daily?”
“Just to clear my head after a busy day.”
“That is a good enough reason.” She seemed satisfied. “Jerk of a boss?”
“I don’t have a boss. I own a small café in the old city.”
“What is it called?”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The Humphrey Bogart impersonation was almost perfect.
“Hahaha. I know. I used to work theatre.”
“You don’t work now?”
“No.” Again, the silence. “You recently lost someone you loved, didn’t you?”
He didn’t know how to reply to her rather straightforward question. “How do you know?”
“The same way I know that you believe that your life has no meaning.” There was a strange harrowing look in her eyes, and he lacked the courage to meet them. “Who was it?” her voice was barely audible.
“My daughter. About a month ago.” He took a deep breath. “Cancer.” he tried hard not to cry but the voice choked at last. She passed him a handkerchief. “Thanks”, he muttered. She didn’t speak another word till he got composed.
“When I lost someone I loved, it felt like the world had ended.”
“It must have been hard.”
“It was. You can’t even imagine the shit a woman approaching her fifties has to go through living alone.”
“Honestly, I can’t.” He lit up another cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke so much.” she smiled and turned away. The sun had almost set. “You know, we always think that life can’t go on without someone. But it does. It always does.”
He kept quiet and smoked. She stood up from the bench and walked towards the lake. Standing at the edge, she continued to stare in the distance while her thin fingers played with her the hairs. He couldn’t fail to notice the emerald ring on the third finger of the right hand. She would turn back and look at him every now and then, waiting for him to say his piece.
He took the last drag and throwing the butt away, walked up to her. “Life goes on, that’s true. But is it worth living anymore?”
She gave a grin. “You sound like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.” There was a long pause, and when she resumed her voice had turned sombre. “It is. It is always worth living. And deep in your heart you know that, don’t you Mr….”
He couldn’t help but smile. “I thought we agreed not to share names.”
“And I thought you must have forgotten all about that and accidently let it slip. Impressive.” She gave him a pat on the back and started laughing.
He couldn’t help but let out a chuckle, “I think I will leave. I can already see some stars.”
She stopped laughing, “Oh. Well, I also think that you should leave. One doesn’t want to find himself trapped in that bamboo jungle during darkness.”
“You are not coming along?”
“No. Why would I?” the cold assurance of her voice raised every last hair on his body. He quickly took out another cigarette and lit it.
“Well, I guess that’s goodbye. Nice to meet you.” She extended her hands. His hands were shaking vigorously and it took him forever to respond. As they shook hands, he looked into her dark green eyes and felt the dark well of sadness hidden deep within her for he first time. Her hands were the softest, most reassuring hands he had ever touched.
“I get it now. Nice to meet you too.” He whispered in the air.
As he walked back with his hands still warm from her touch, he could feel her presence linger in the atmosphere. The small inscription on the concrete base of the bench was clearly visible from this angle. “Dedicated to the memory of….” He didn’t read any further.
Reaching the entrance to the bamboo enclosed path, he looked back one last time. In the dying light of the day, he could make out various shapes in front of his eyes. The bench, the tree, the birds, the shrubs on the other side of the lake. All except her.
He didn’t stop once during his uphill walk through the path till he reached the centre of the park. Night had fallen by then, and it was a full moon. The air was full of perfume scents and the smell of food, and the sound of kids shouting while the parents talked among themselves.
He looked at the phone. There were three messages reminding him about the groceries.
As he walked out of the park, whistling the tune of “As time goes by”, he threw away the pack of cigarettes in the nearest dustbin he could find.