At seventy-two, life changes suddenly and dramatically for Martin D’Mello. Changes are perhaps thus – swift, unexpected, for the change is actually fractured time. D’Mello, as his friends call him, or Uncle D’Mello to younger customers, is not new to disruptions. This though, is unprecedented. To be stumped by a virus did not feature in his meticulously drawn up list of expectations and anxieties for his advanced age. And so, standing on the long veranda of the house, he watches traffic dwindle on the street, sound give way to silence, human hubbub replaced by a kind of imposed stupor, as of children forcibly put to bed on holiday afternoons.
A kilometre and a half along the road, on the other edge, stands an old cemetery, its gate-arms wide open. There is nothing in between. The gateways of the two establishments look askance at each other, as if that is the only way left to communicate.
During the day, he feels as if the hush of the cemetery has entered his house. Those who managed his home for him cannot come to work; all he has in the spacious rooms and outside is himself, time immeasurable and a few passing vehicles.
Evenings look different. A car, or two, streaks past, chromium wheels lucent in the falling light, leaving silence in its wake. To Martin, it looks as if the road catches hold of this silence and pulls it to tautness, stretching till it snaps. He doesn’t hear the twang of the breakage, only the lack of all sound. It keeps him awake at nights.
He learnt of a new word in his bookshop the other day. When he thinks of his city as it is these days, suspended in time, in space, in its potential for life, he thinks of the word. He thinks of it as the dusk deepens, turning the trees into amorphous shades. Kenopsia.
Behind the house, a truck rumbles down the flyover. Below, a tiny garage trembles in its aftermath. Its bright blue shutter, painted only a month ago, comes down.
The garage is on its own.
D’Mello reaches the crossing for his weekly vegetables. Across the roundabout, on the left of the road, there used to be a handcart selling evening snacks to software professionals returning home from work. Young men and women, laptop bags slung over their shoulders or hunkering on their backs, would step off their company shuttles and wolf down the savouries as if their life depended on it. The vegetable vendor with her stall behind the handcart would wait for the men and women to eventually saunter into her shop for their daily needs. The city was slowly turning into a ‘readymade’ paradise: chopped vegetables, pouches of oil, cleaned coriander, fenugreek, spinach, peeled pomegranate, garlic cloves… the list was endless and grew every week.
He stands outside the sparsely stocked vegetable shop and waits for the familiar sight of the buses. At the spot where the snacks vendor once sold his ware is a big black patch of dried-up oil, water, sweat, spit and animal waste – individually indistinguishable. A bus comes to its usual halt in front of the empty juice bar. It’ll wait for exactly three minutes, he knows – enough time for the men and women to step out of the bus and on to the pavement. Usually there are a dozen getting off at this busy junction. Today, only two young women.
Where are your children? He asks the vegetable seller. She’s packing up the meagre remnants of her supplies and doesn’t respond. By the time he turns away, the women from the bus are already moving silhouettes in the distance. There is nobody else on the road. On either side, trees cut off light from the street lamps, plunging it into discordant shadows. Here, the residential colonies seem to huddle, their gates almost touching, separating walls close together, perimeter trees bunching into one another, gates shut. No one comes out. Watchmen stare at him from their cabins. He wants to stop and tell them that he’s respectable, the owner of two bookshops, that all he wants is to talk with somebody.
He decides to discontinue his walks, stay at home. Had his wife been alive, she would have scolded him for stepping out at such a time. He is past his prime, susceptible to all kinds of virus, not just this raging one that nobody seems able to control. But who will get him his weekly necessities? That is just another argument, she would have told him, would have found a way to keep him at home.
Somewhere, a scooter starts. Idles. Accelerates. Stops. Starts again. Each sound amplified.
Up the road, an empty handcart trundles towards the crossing.
Sunlight leaches through the curtains on to the bed – king size with a single occupant. He breathes in the cool breeze from the window, the sun-warmth, the mustiness of the bedsheet, the stickiness under his armpits, then gets out of bed, slowly. At this age, doctors warn against sudden movement, especially when the mind and body are still foggy from sleep, but he hasn’t been sleeping well. Lack of noise, he has come to realize, is not conducive to restful sleep.
In the store room, paint cans stand in a neat row, left behind by the painters. He should complete what they started. As he bends to check the cans, he hears a van speed past the house and stands still, listening to the screech of tyres, the whoosh of its exhaust, the dust and dry leaves ruffling the still air.
Somewhere, a tap drips water. He hurries into the kitchen. Dry. The bathrooms, perhaps, or the veranda. Dry. The first-floor balcony has a tap with a long hosepipe to water the plants. When he steps out on to this balcony, he remembers: the hosepipe had cracked from age and the tap stopped working long ago. The terrace. He stops to catch his breath, then climbs the remaining steps to the terrace, unlocks its door and stands still in the white light, blinded by its suddenness, its completeness, its everywhere-ness. The drip is faint here, the vista clear, all the way to the cemetery and beyond, to the lake. For the time being, everything is a white swathe till his eyes adjust to it. The lake is still. Nobody on the road. Between the house and the cemetery, the awning of treetops stands still. As he turns away, the breeze picks up.
The treetops readjust themselves.
The walls have grown air bubbles. He scrapes and scrubs and primes through the day. By late afternoon, he is hungry, his body sore from unfamiliar labour, a bad decision by any standard. He has climbed the steps of his two-storeyed house, climbed the ladder to the roof and down to the floor, measured the length of the living room walls with paint brushes. In the bathroom mirror, he sees the peeled off paint flakes that sit on his ageing body like scabs, the droplets of fresh paint that stick to him like second skin. After his bath, he prepares rice and a single vegetable dish – potato and tomato curry with green coriander and plenty of green chillies, one of the few things he knows to cook. He eats his first meal of the day, the rice sticky, the pickle extra tangy and nobody to scold him for indiscipline.
He listens to the cemetery gates clang shut and grate open in the slight wind. A sudden memory from his youth: he and a friend had sneaked into the grounds, hiding from the gardener and the caretaker. So many graves. So many tombstones. So many words on them! Do you think there are more than a thousand graves here? His friend had asked as they looked around, crouched behind a tree. There were red ants around their feet and an anthill that seemed to grow before their very eyes. Let’s climb over the gate and come back at night, he’d whispered, frightened, uneasy. Beyond the swollen red ants, the anthill and the tree, a cross loomed before their eyes, its back to them, draped with a wreath of fresh flowers, the soil around the grave and the cross still soft. He had taken a step towards it when someone pinched his ear. He swung around, terrified that the dead had risen. By the time they ran back to their homes, they were still not sure whether the woman who had pulled his ear was from the living or the dead. How scared they were that day. How young!
The drip of the tap follows him through the house, day-long, an irritant that he must address as soon as he finds its source.
An ambulance clamours along the flyover.
Below, the garage downs its blue shutter on another empty day.
The roads are deserted. Shops shut. He walks along the tree shaded lane till the dead end where cars are parked close together, dusty, unused, tyres softening on concrete. A raucous gathering of birds in the laburnum trees scatters the quietness but it descends again, smashing through the ruckus with the deadness of no-noise.
He loses track of days and hours. When his stock of vegetables and chicken dwindles, he returns to the shops. There are fewer choices every week. When he finds the usual places closed or without supplies, he looks for other venues and returns home exhausted. He calls up his cook to ask about a recipe but there’s no response, her phone switched off. He hopes she’s safe. He calls up book distributors, their conversations meander after a while, voices floating over virtual space, negotiations at a standstill. Who will buy books now? He feels a compulsive need to walk all day, dislodge the stagnation imposed on him.
He’s giving away his sense of control, of life – the thought keeps him awake through the nights.
He takes a hurried walk one evening. His preferred vegetable shop is closed, sackcloth tied across its entrance. The soil around the flowering bushes of the median is cracking, un-watered. At the crossing up the road, the statue of the little mermaid splashing water is dry but clean, no smoke and dust on its colourful, glittering tail. He squats to feed the regular stray dogs and notices a couple of new ones in the gang. The dogs have their fill and wander away. No bus comes by to drop off its occupants. Solitary, benumbed, he walks away.
The stone mermaid flicks water off its tail.
Drip. Drop. Drip…
The sound sneaks into his wakefulness. It seems to keep him company, a musical tattoo to the chirping of birds.
Going about his daily chores, he wonders whether he could set up a series of video sessions with his customers – he could read books to them and ask them to read from books they have bought from his shops. Why not? He feels excited and wanders into the balcony. At one time, he could see the tombstones from here but the trees have grown taller and shroud the view. A strange thought occurs to him: the dead souls in the cemetery have one another; he has nobody.
Restless, he makes one last phone call for the day and puts on his walking shoes. He’s proud of his fitness at this age, but it is only for familiar exercises, he concedes. Climbing staircases is no longer familiar but he has to do it more and more these days.
He walks past the cemetery, then returns and lingers at its open gateway. The grounds have no space for fresh dead bodies. It has been a very long time since he has entered the premises. He walks among the graves. The caretaker who lived in a tiny cottage near the gate has left, the gardeners stopped coming a month ago. The gate is rusty, unhinged. He used to listen to its screech from his house at night, now he can hear it even during the day, except when the air is still.
The company of the dead, he thinks, as he shuffles towards his father’s grave. Dry flowers, burnt out candles, cigarette butts, mud, dry leaves litter the space around and over it. He makes a broom with the broken off fronds of a coconut tree that leans over the grave. As he finishes the task of cleaning and tries to straighten up, he cannot. His back is stiff. He waits, then tries again. The spasm shoots through his upper back. He cannot move and remains half bent, eyes closed against the pain, mind shut against all other sensation.
The coconut tree arches over his curved back.
He opens his eyes, trying to will the pain away, yearning for his bed, to lie down, to stretch, to drink water, to be inside his house. His hunched back strains his calf muscles. Slowly, as if in a distant, muted dream, he watches the sunlight shift, shadows collect, cats prowl along the edges of the flower beds. A silent film in which, if he calls, only the dead will hear. He looks at the grave he had been cleaning. He doesn’t believe in prayers, neither did his father. His wife did. He cheated with her in his youth, muttering obscenities when she joined her hands in prayer. No Holy Spirit for him. No beads and rosaries. No Hail Mary’s. No holy water. She remained upset with him lifelong, even after he had given up cursing and swearing; she gave him no son, no daughter, afraid that they would grow up as impious as their father.
He collapses over his father’s grave, six feet of him in half the space he would have taken inside the grave, he thinks. What if the mud gives way and he falls into the pit? What will he see of his father?
He tries to stretch, but his back sends shockwaves through his body. Every tissue and ligament will rend. His bones feel centuries old. He groans and exhales noisily, dislodging dust, grass and wisps of dry flowers from the black granite on which his cheek rests. Sleep, he urges himself. It will rest the back, make it possible to stagger back home.
He swears through clenched teeth. At seventy-two, Martin D’Mello breaks his promise to his wife – of never to curse, a promise he has kept for three and a half decades. Now he swears, again and again, as if a gate has opened somewhere, releasing him from bondage. He fumbles in his pockets for his cell phone and in a mighty howl of anger and pain, remembers that he has left it on the veranda where he had tied his shoelaces.
He watches the last rays of the sun recede – light and its absence, two worlds of seeing and not-seeing. He feels the cool breeze at his neck. Curled like a foetus on his father’s grave, he looks longingly at the caretaker’s cottage near the gate.
Darkness gathers around him, around the graves, in the trees. There’s nothing to do but wait for the pain to cease, to release him, listen to the sough of the trees and the leaves that fall nightlong.
In his sleep, he feels his wife’s presence and wakes up. It’s still. The stillness of the dead, he thinks, and remembers suddenly the journey they had undertaken in the middle of winter. Her uncle, the one who had brought her up, was unwell with no immediate family with him. The news of his illness came from the hospital early in the morning. She had replaced the receiver in its cradle and started packing her suitcase, ready to leave alone. They were frantic; train bookings were not available and her hometown had no airport. Finally, they decided to drive all the way – better the longer travel time than the uncertainty over reservations.
His back seems to have eased a little. He tries to turn and realizes that the relief is illusory.
The drive was tedious. In winter, daylight is easy to lose. As they turned the bend on the mountain slope, a lorry grazed their car, sending it hurtling onto the mountainside. A crash, a single scream. As they lay trapped in the ruins of their car, all he could see was the empty road ahead and lights twinkling in the valley below. All he could hear was the blood from her temple dripping onto the tin box she had placed at her feet. He mourned for a year, then moved on. Among the marriage vows, they had promised each other not to mourn loss for more than a year. He kept his part of the promise. She must be happy too in her paradise.
He pats his father’s grave, a renewed sense of closeness bringing back cherished memories he had begun to forget. He thinks of him at rest below this granite and mud; he thinks of the emptiness of his house and of the strange fellowship of this place, its warm embrace. He has hardly eaten. Less is perhaps more as one ages and he’s surprised at how well he has lasted through the day on a bowl of cornflakes. He doesn’t feel lonely either, as if here, among decaying bones and melting flesh, among remembrances of the once-living and yearnings now dead, he has found companionship. Time has fractured again.
Curled up on his father’s resting place, Martin falls asleep.
Around the world, a virus charts its course.
“Interlude” was first published in the e-book Lockdown Longings by Roli Books in July 2020.