I am the narrator of this story, I’m also la voix dans la tête, the voice inside the head. Imagine me as one of those deep, unromantic voices of narrators in French films. Perhaps it will make this story a bit more romantic, a bit more surreal.
Traffic fumes mingle with the odour of frying oil and cattle dung. An open sewer nearby sends out its own stench to join the parade of foul smells.
He breathes out the cigarette smoke through his nostrils, burning away his olfactory senses. A crow is sitting perched atop an empty earthen pot. He is reminded of the bedtime story about the thirsty crow that his mother used to tell him when he was a child.
The crow cawed crassly. Although not half as crass as the maddening traffic. Bending down, he held out his cigarette towards the crow.
‘Want a drag, eh?’ he joked.
The crow tilted its head sideways – first one side, then the other. Steadily and with care it drew closer. Then with an agile movement of the beak it flicked the burning cigarette off from between his fingers and flew away.
The apparently blind beggar let out a chuckle. This was bad for business. Realising his folly, he got up quickly and walked away, his steel bowl jingled with coins as he passed.
‘Alms! Alms to the poor. Lord bless those who feed the hungry,’ called out the voice of another old, poverty stricken women. Her hair, ugly dread-locks, had grayed with age (and not wisdom), her glassy eyes told a story he did not understand, her decaying teeth, black as soot, were symbolic of nothing but rot and her brown skin had a leathery texture. She did not look human at all, but instead some mystical pagan worshiper. She spoke to him in a dialect he was not familiar with, but that didn’t matter, he knew she wanted money. He had none. He just smiled to show he was sorry. She simply waved her hand in disappointment and walked away murmuring.
How strange people are. How very intriguing their faces are. As he walked, he studied them — it was a game of sorts that he often played to amuse himself, he would try to read a face and figure what kind of life the person led. In truth though, what he really hoped to achieve through this exercise was a kindred spirit to his hopeless romantic self.
Aren’t all romantics hopeless?
Passing by the colonial-era-styled houses, their walls stained red with betel juice, he wondered about the uncultured state of the society we live in. In this era of man-eats-man, he thought, the bohemian ways of the nineteenth century artists are greatly undervalued as means of personal growth.
He was, thus, in a contemplative and solemn mood when it caught his attention. Oscar Wilde was smiling at him, his chin resting upon his arm supported by the back of the chair on which he sat. A little kid of about twelve who had probably never learned to read himself – although he could deal with numbers and basic arithmetic – was selling an assortment of novels by the roadside. Amongst the collection, comprising mostly of third rate fiction by local authors, lay the finest copy of “Selected Works of Oscar Wilde.” Here was the face he had been searching forever in the crowd. Oh, how dreadful it was to have your heart’s desire right before you but have no means to obtain it!
Vowing to return he turned his back to the secretively smiling face of Wilde and walked on. Time would only strengthen his want, and of this he was certain.
He stepped into an old café that he frequented. He knew the owner who let him keep a tab there, but he had to pay his dues every month. In any case, the café sat upon an open terrace which gave it a sort of European appeal. The sun was beginning to set and the heat had died. The sweet summer breeze brought with it the fragrance of the rose-flower that grew on the terrace-garden.
Sitting down, he lit his cigarette and with one arm resting loosely behind the back of the chair he began to examine the faces around. The pretentious, painted faces of women, and the men with their absolutely hideous style of dressing and grooming amused him. The mixture of tobacco and the scented summer breeze had an opium like effect. His head lightened and his muscles relaxed.
It was at such a moment that his eyes fell upon her. That very instant he knew he had found his inspiration, his art, his muse. He would paint portraits of her, compose ballads of romance for her and write the most elaborate sonnets. She shall be his religion, his romance, l’amour de sa vie, the love of his life, his all!
Hold on, go steady my hero, Mr Protagonist. Would not you rather know her first?
Ah! But the heart had decided. Still holding the cigarette he walked towards her with the air of a man who had realised himself.
‘May I join you?’ he asked very coolly.
Her hair blew in the gentle wind. Dear lord, you should have seen her that evening! She had come, as if, out of a renaissance painting; an aesthetic ideal of supreme standards.
She motioned gracefully with her hand, inviting him to sit. She, however, did not smile, but simply looked on with playful eyes.
‘A lovely evening, isn’t it,’ said he.
A cliché as a conversation opener? How very pathetic, my friend.
‘Indeed, but not very dramatic though. I prefer my evenings dramatic and my coffee strong,’ she said, then took a sip from her cup.
‘Well, is it?’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘Your coffee; is it strong enough?’
‘Oh, it’s just about fine I suppose,’ she said, smiling a little.
Come on, surely you’re not that bad a conversationalist! Say something amusing, make her laugh, or ask her something about herself.
‘Are you new in town? I’ve never seen you around before’
‘Yes, well, in a way. I mean, I’m here to audition for the theatre’
‘Really, so you’re an actress? What all plays have you been in?’ he took a long drag from his cigarette.
‘Not a lot of plays, I’m afraid. It’s sort of embarrassing,’ she replied.
Wind blew the smoke into her face, making her cough.
‘I’m really really sorry! I did not mean to . . . it . . . I- ‘ he repeated over and over feeling guilty and very foolish.
‘It’s alright, don’t apologise, no really. It’s okay!’ she assured, ‘do you happen to have any more cigarettes?’
‘Yeah, sure, other than cigarettes and love, I have little else to offer’
That’s the corniest thing I’ve ever heard! You’re terrible at this.
She laughed. He smiled. Then he drew a pack of the most exquisite Turkish cigarettes from his pocket and offered her one. She popped one into her mouth, I must admit she did it quite stylishly. He sat staring at her. She looked like one of those elegant French women from the mid-twentieth century, he had seen only in the movies but had always desired.
‘Light?’ she said.
He snapped out of his dream state, ‘huh?’
‘Light’ she repeated, ‘for the cigarette.’
‘Ah, apologies, I lost myself somewhere, thinking of you. Here . . . ‘ Leaning forward, he clicked his lighter, but nothing happened. He clicked again, nothing.
So, a cigarette lighter bring an end to this delightful meeting? I was only beginning to enjoy myself . . .
‘Just wait here, I’ll get some matches from below,’ saying this he made a dash downstairs; ‘don’t go anywhere!’
He ran because in his mind there was the fear of never meeting her, or anyone like her, ever again. Even in that very little time they had spent, she had had an effect similar to that caused by wonderful art or literature. It would be dreadful to lose her, that too without having had her.
But what was her name? You imbecile! How could you not ask her name?
The sun had set completely, the sky was coloured fiery red. It complemented the redness of the roses swaying in the cool breeze of an evening in May. A cuckoo bird sitting on the railing cooed with joy. Below, on the street, you could hear children laughing away at some silly joke, funny only to them. Adults lack the imagination to find jokes funny, they are somewhat degenerate.
Running upstairs with the matches, he felt his own heart against his chest. It was too late. The table where she had sat was now vacant. She had cleared her bill and taken off.
So, it was like that crow earlier? It too had taken off with your cigarette.
He walked along the road lined on either side by excellently maintained colonial-era houses, complete with bougainvillea creeping along the rails on the terrace as the wind tousled his long, curled hair. A romantic poet met a dramatic actress, neither knew the other’s name or any other detail. All they had had between them was an amazingly dull conversation, a cigarette and the romantic terrace-top café, where maybe, just maybe, he might find her again.
Thinking of it all he smiled. It had been a rather “dramatic evening” after all . . .
. . . And the night was yet to fall.
Aayush is a student of computer engineering, a Wilde fanatic and a devotee of Floyd.