I’d finally found a cozy corner for myself in the spiffy new Tea Café up in the hills, where I planned to spend some quality ‘ME’ time. I’d found a place where I could sit with a piping hot mug of tea and a book, just by myself. Where I wasn’t required to be at my polished best and there wasn’t any ‘propah’ behavior required. Where I would go unnoticed and just be left to my own mulling. Who knew that would just turn out to be my presumption?
I’m quite a recluse you see. I enjoy my own company the most but how can I deny I’ve also caught myself staring at others, far too many times. Not that I’d ever meant to be rude but I’ve always reveled in the beauty of the detailing and the wide variety churned out of God’s workshop. The myriad faces with infinite different ways of expressing the same 9 emotions. The mannerisms and body languages that have their own codes which even the scholars would take ages to decipher. I could get so lost in observing a new face that caught my fancy, that I’d jerk out of my reverie only at the sudden realization that I’d been caught in the atrocious act of staring.
That day the victim’s eyes were glowering back at me, like in readiness to drill through my skull. I wasn’t ogling, mind you! I was just taken in by the way there was so much symmetry in her face. The moles at almost the same spot on each side of her delicately carved chin, the broad temple with her hair parted in the middle granted her face the grace of looking like a perfectly drawn heart.
“How unfair on my part,” I reprimanded myself, “I really need to curtail this bad habit! I’m invading her privacy while I yearn for an hour of my own? ”
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon when the monsoon skies were overcast with gray clouds that seemed to be threatening to begin their downpour again. I was sitting on a lounger in the extreme left hand-side corner in the verandah of the Tea Café which felt like it was tailor-made to my choice, with the ample shade above and the panoramic view of the luscious greens around. The leaves of the trees trembling in the strong wind would now and then send a spray of rain drops to kiss my face. Or so I loved to imagine. Quite a romantic am I not?
The girl with the heart shaped symmetrical face seemed to be in very pensive mood. She sat 2 tables away in the row across and seemed to be waiting for somebody because she kept looking over her left shoulder as if she felt she’d sensed someone come up the steps. If she was waiting for someone, I wondered why she was sitting with her back to the entrance. With her tall slender fingers she was jabbing with the muddler at the couple of leftover ice cubes at the bottom of her tall Ice Tea glass.
I frowned at my folly once again and immediately consciously brought myself back to the book in my hands. I decided that I would not give her as much as a second glance now. “For an actor, this couldn’t be a good sign. I must exercise self-control!” I taught myself.
With a big sip I drained the refreshing Moroccan Mint Tea to the last drop and turned to a fresh new page. I’d already finished re-reading the previous page thrice because my mind kept straying while my eyes mechanically scoured the rows and rows of black letters. Somehow struggling with a gist of where the story had reached, I proceeded to the next page with hopes of finding a better read. “Where had all the spellbinding writing gone? I should have picked up a classic then I’d never be losing myself to the insanity of wondering about that stranger seated there.” I thought, as I noted the page number I’d turned to. “45? Is that all? What a shame!” I concluded I needed another cup of tea.
As I looked up again to hail a server, I was suddenly stung by the sight of the empty seat and her absence. I spotted a pencil stub roll of the tabletop to the floor and a tissue paper glided like a feather on the wind, sliding to the floor at my feet. Like an automated robot I picked up the paper and pencil and rushed to the edge of the verandah to see her walking away.
|Photo copyrights remain with Amity|
There was a light drizzle and the verdant tall green trees that laced the road downhill stood a stark contrast to the dark skies. The hemline of her black dress blew in the light breeze but she managed to gracefully keep it pinned to her side. As the fair and petite figure walked away she opened up her bright Red umbrella. The only spot of colour in the otherwise dull background I observed.
“HULLO!” boomed a voice right next to my ear. I hadn’t realized that Mr. Prabhakar, the manager of the Café had walked up and was waiting for me to move aside so that he could enter the Café.
“Anything wrong Mr. Vivian? He enquired in a worried tone.
I don’t remember if I’d given a polite reply but he went away bobbing his head in disagreement. I was still clutching the tissue paper in my hand and trying to figure out what was scribbled in a light hand on the textured surface. I could read the numerical well but the alphabets were in a very illegible script. It was almost like a cryptic code to me. It read as “ 1 C….Murd…..So…S….” That’s all of the 2 lines that I could decipher. My head started to swim with all kinds of ugly thoughts racing in and out.
“Was she trying to communicate with me through codes? Was she secretly asking for HELP? She did look quite disturbed. And that apparently is something about 1 Cold Murder and the message ends with SOS.” I was talking to myself, aloud.
I decided it was time for me to exercise some of my intelligence and save a life. I invoked the image of Byomkesh Bakshi in my mind. Had grown up watching the Hindi Teleserial based on a Bengali detective. My heart was racing. She however had left no contact details. How was I to go ahead?
I’d read somewhere that many a times the question itself presents an answer.
“Make it a simple cup of Green Tea for me today with a dash of lemon please.” I’d placed my order.
I was going to skip a mid-day meal and head straight for a lunch soiree hosted by my friend, a supermodel who was back in town.
I’d picked a book from the bookshelf and tucking it under my arm I went ahead and occupied my favourite seat but I knew I was uncomfortable from within. Not at peace at all. A week had gone by. I wondered what must have happened to the girl with the red umbrella. The Café was busier than usual this weekend and there were quite a many couples sitting around, sipping and having a hearty chat over lovely looking meals. My eyes were however yearning to see somebody in particular.
I stood up and leaned against the wooden railing. The skies had cleared comparatively but it was still drizzling lightly.
“The rains aren’t over yet” I told myself and began my silent search of the landscape.
Just then like the heavens had answered my prayers, there came a red umbrella, upturned, bobbing on the ground, hopping with the gust of wind. And scurrying after it to get a grip of her errant umbrella was the same girl with the fascinating features. She was in a simple knee-length denim shirt dress this time.
I braced myself for an eye contact and expected a follow-up on the cryptic message she’d left for me the other day.
“I will wait for some sign from you again. I am here for you!” I was saying to myself, hoping that my telepathy would reach her.
She entered the Café laden with boxes and bags and headed straight for the cake counter inside.
“She must be starving.” Was the thought that came to my mind in an instant.
For a good thirty minutes she dint step out on the verandah at all. I tried to peer through the window display from my seat but couldn’t get a clear view of the service counter. I began to get a tad bit restless. The book I’d picked went completely untouched. I began to rise from my seat with the intention of checking after her. Right then she came rushing out, picked up her red umbrella from the bay and ran down the short flight of steps. She seemed to have not noticed me at all. However all the other guests at the Café had trained their eyes on me!
“I must be quite a known Telly face by now.” I gloated for half a minute before collecting my senses.
In her hurry, from between all the grocery bags and shopping bags in her hand, a book had dropped out as she made an exit.
“This girl seems to be perpetually perplexed and leaving something behind.” I was observing as I picked up the book with trembling hands. And Lo and behold! Like I’d expected there was indeed a hidden message in the book again. For me!
The book was Cloud Atlas written by David Mitchell. I’d watched the movie but never thought of reading the original book. She’d ear marked the page No. 451. And on that page in bold letters was written ‘What… were you supposed to do for the next three days?’
I dint care to read any further. I began to mentally run through my schedule over the next 3 days. There was the shoot for my ongoing Tele-serial. And then there were my dress fittings for the grand upcoming awards function by the Tele-channel. Nothing much otherwise!
“…but what has that got to do with her? What does she mean? Is she asking me out? Is this a love story and not a murder mystery as I’d imagined?” A thousand thoughts were rushing through my head. I was left dumbfounded and was beginning to feel a little stupid.
I put the book back on the Café’s bookshelf and fished out the old tissue paper from my back pocket. I went through the scribbling again.
“ 1 C….Murd…..So…S….” It made perfect sense now.
She must have meant to write, “1 Cup Tea on Monday Sweets?”
I was ready for her and waiting at the same table in that same lucky corner of the beautiful Café. I was a well established name in the Tele-serials Industry at the moment and there was definitely no dearth of love interests around but this pretty girl with the red umbrella had definitely hooked me for good. The element of mystery around her was my bait. Despite all the other kinds of excitement in my life I was longing for a serious and genuine relationship outside of the Hindi Film Industry.
I was ready for her. She appeared to be as quirky as I was and her restlessness did echo mine in a way. we were a potentially great match. She had intrigued me. And it was most interesting that her style of drawing me towards her was completely unique. I was sure that it was my staring at her, that had given her ideas but who was complaining? I was more than happy that it wasn't a murder mystery but a love story I was between.
And she never turned up.
I waited for quite a long while, around the same time of day that I had spotted her twice on the previous occasions. I was boiling in my seat. I’d never been stood up, ever before.
My third cup of Chamomile tea arrived along with my second plate of Garlic Toasties. I tend to binge when I’m tense and I was doing exactly that. Between mouthfuls of morsel, forgetting all my good manners I blurted out a question to my server.
“Do you know who that girl with the red umbrella is? She’s quite a regular here.”
She was initially taken aback by my sudden enquiry. After pondering for a little while she ventured, “Are you talking about Ms. Bernadette, our bakery goods supplier’s daughter, Sir? ”
The minute the words ‘bakery goods’ fell on my ears I felt a little something sink into the pit of my tummy. My eyes fell down to the crumpled piece of tissue paper I was clenching. While I re-read the illegible writing all over again, I could hear her continuing to explain, “….. She usually comes to collect the payment for the week’s supplies and to pick up the order for the following week. That’s all Sir!”
Everything suddenly became a little too crystal clear now. I was hanging onto a simply random part of a baking recipe that she must have doodled while she was waiting to receive her payment from Mr Prabhakar. And that was that!
There wasn't any love story cooking for me.
It was a fantastic case of a horribly grave misunderstanding.