I sat with a warm cup of tea in the balcony. Had I had it a few minutes ago it would’ve been hot. The late evening breeze was cool despite it being the midst of summer. It was because of the two consecutive days of rain that we’d had yesterday and the day before. The road in front lay forsaken. Lights shone in neighbouring buildings while families continued with their daily rituals. I sipped my lukewarm tea and wondered why was I even bothering to drink it.
From inside I heard the click of the light being switched off, then footsteps approaching. Without looking back I asked, “Is he asleep?”
“Yes,” said the young nurse as she pulled up a chair beside mine.
“Your tea is near the gas,” I said. “Heat it, it must have got cold.”
She got up and went inside. I could hear the click of the light switch, the faint clang of the saucepan. I wish she’d be softer. Papa was a light sleeper as it is, and though he took a sleeping tablet at night, there were many nights he’d be up despite that. Those nights were always the worst. He wouldn’t want to lie in bed, and I was too scared to drag him around the tiny apart. Particularly scared of his attraction to this balcony, the one that fit only 2 chairs. The fear had crept in the day he indistinctly mumbled, “I should just jump off.” It wasn’t a joke, just a fed up man’s unfulfilled wish to leave a body that was now as useful as a crumpled tissue. The accident had left him severely paralyzed and completely dependent. And as it thwarted his life plans, it curtailed mine too.
The nurse returned with a steaming cup of tea and I looked at it lustily. Since the time she was locked in with us she’d stopped wearing her uniform. She had two salwar suits that she washed and repeated, and two nightdresses. It hadn’t taken a lot of convincing to get her to agree to stay on. She was planning to get married early next year and was saving as much as she could. If she stayed with us during this period, she’d earn for a twenty-four hour shift as opposed to her regular twelve hour one. Besides, she complained, that her mother drove her crazy at home explaining to her why she shouldn’t marry her boyfriend, so staying home with a sick, paralysed man, and a lonely middle-aged woman seemed like a better option to her.
“He’s restless today,” she said, crossing her legs on the cane chair. “He wanted to sit here.”
“I know, but I told him I’d bring him tomorrow morning. I don’t want him catching a cold at night,” I added. She agreed.
In the distance someone turned on music and the faint strains waltzed through the air, swirling around the neighbourhood.
“Did you speak to your family?” I asked. She was only in her mid-twenties, and it was natural for them to be worried. I encouraged her to call home everyday, but I knew she didn’t, not for a few days after she argued with her mom. In our tiny apartment nothing remained a secret.
“Yes, mummy asked what I was eating. I told her you made a very delicious fish curry today,” she smiled. I smiled too. Everyday I cooked one meal, and we ate it twice a day. My mother would have disapproved, but I’m sure she’d also be happy to see me follow her recipes.
“We’re lucky we get meat and fish right outside,” I said, as a way of making conversation. “Otherwise you’d be complaining to your mother about the awful meals you’re getting,” I laughed.
She wrapped both her hands around the cup and slurped loudly, shaking her head. “No didi, you’re taking good care of me. You’re taking such good care of uncle too. I’ve worked in houses where the sick and elderly are abandoned in one corner, almost as though the family is hoping they’d forget about them if they can’t be seen.”
“We have one and a half bedrooms,” I said, smiling. “No corners to hide anyone here.”
“Still didi, you could have left, you could have gone. So many people do that. No, you’re good, you’re a nice person, and god will bless you.”
I looked away from her into the night, at the twinkling lights of the homes I had never bothered to notice earlier. Yes, god would bless me, I’d been told. I was the good child, the responsible one, the one who stayed to look after my sick father, the one traded life for responsibility towards an ailing parent. God would bless me, I heard often, and wondered when.
I turned to her and said more coldly than I intended to, “Someone has to stay back. Someone always does.” She said nothing, but quickly picked up our empty cups and walked inside. A brief moment later I heard the kitchen tap run. I knew she’d then go and check on papa. She woke up every two hours and checked on him, I knew that, because on many nights as I sat in the balcony unable to sleep, I heard her move about the bedroom. My room was too tiny to stay in it for too long, just enough place for a single cot and a bedside table. So I split my life, folded in the compact bedroom, or fitting in to the miniscule balcony.
The question of leaving our tiny apartment never arose. It was where mom and papa lived, where my two siblings and I were born, where mom died, and where I tried to keep living while keeping papa alive. The space was always less but it was ours. When my brother and sister visited, they stayed in the guest house on the ground floor, and in between shopping and visiting friends, they spent time in the drawing room, with the TV on, stepping in and out of papa’s room to chat with him. That’s also when the elusive relatives visited and blessed me and told me repeatedly that I was the good child. Yet I didn’t receive visitors otherwise.
The nurse returned, after having attended to my father. “He’s okay, just restless. He was sweating a lot, so I removed the blanket and gave him a lighter sheet,” she explained. I nodded. The doctor had been very specific – do not let your father catch a chill. That’s why I never turned the fan on in full, and always ensured the blanket was warm. “I think he liked your fish curry,” the nurse added, smiling. “He ate a little more rice than usual. I had to go back and blend more because he nodded when I asked if he wanted a second helping.”
“I’m glad,” I said. Papa’s speech was almost impossible to understand, though in the last decade or so I’d picked up this new language that he had created. Even then often I found it difficult to understand, especially when he was agitated. Lifting him out of bed was an effort, yet I insisted that the sweeper help out, and twice a week I had him shifted to the wheel chair and brought to the balcony for an hour or two. With his tilted head he stared into the sunlit city, watching busy people go on with their lives. I often wondered if that didn’t make him feel more miserable. Sometimes I’d sit with him, holding his hand and we’d both stare into a city that had forgotten we existed. Other times it was this nurse, sitting beside him, staring at her phone, sometimes propping his head up, just to change the angle from which he viewed the horizon.
“What will you do once the quarantine is lifted?” she asked, scattering my thoughts.
“I?” I seemed quite surprised by the question. I thought about it, what would I do? Then I smiled. “I’ll go to the bakery and buy us fresh, warm bread to eat.”
She laughed loudly and I had to hush her. “Oh didi, everyone has such grand plans and that’s all you’ll do?” She covered her mouth to keep her voice down.
I smiled. “What will you do?” I asked her.
“I’ll go to the parlour first,” she giggled. “Maybe even before I go home. Or else my mother will look at me and say I look like a witch.”
My father’s cough interjected my reply. Immediately the nurse sprang up. I made to move but she gestured me to sit. I could hear the consistent coughing sound but I knew why she didn’t want me there. Papa was more obedient when I wasn’t around. Yet, I got up and went to his bedroom, standing quietly at the door. The nurse had propped him up, and was spooning water into his mouth, wiping what spilled out with a napkin. They hadn’t seen me, and I preferred it that way.
My brother’s dollars and my sister’s pounds were useful. They arrived every quarter, adequate, sometimes surplus. I would let papa know every time the money came into our account, and he’d mutter something, which in his curated language meant ‘say thank you to them’. I always passed on his message.
Suddenly the nurse turned on the light. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t seen her move. She let out a startled ‘Oh’ when she spotted me at the door. Papa’s shirt, I noticed, was stained, he’d coughed into it. I walked in to help her. Together we lifted my bony father who unexplainably weighed too much for either of us to lift by ourselves, into a sitting position. He mumbled a protest, groggy under the effect of the sleeping pill he’d taken.
“We’re just changing your night shirt,” I explained, as the nurse unbuttoned it. I found a little spot for myself beside him and reached for his hands. Withered, shrunk, bony and cold, I intertwined our fingers. He was still mumbling protests, unhappy at the disturbance. “Shh,” I hushed him, “just a little bit longer.” He closed his eyes, resigned. The nurse and I moved him forward as she managed to get him to slide his arms through the sleeves. I buttoned his shirt with my free hand. He had fallen back to sleep so I suggested we let him be. She took his messy shirt to the bathroom where she’d wash it the next day.
“Switch off the light,” I whispered, still remaining beside my father, our hands inter-twined. I watched him breathe in and out, like his breath was marching to a drumbeat. I leaned over and kissed his forehead. Then leaning towards him I asked, “What would you do first when the quarantine is lifted?”
He opened his eyes, suddenly awake, and with an effort tilted his head towards me. I smiled and repeated my question. “What will you do first when the quarantine is lifted?” He looked straight at me, his eyes shining in the dark bedroom. He opened his mouth and uttered a sound, one for which I had no translation. I smiled encouragingly at him. Exhausted, he closed his eyes, his head still tilted towards me and went back to sleep. “Yes, that’s a plan,” I agreed softly. “We’ll do it together.”