Short story

A birthday gift

The party was over. Before they left, his son and daughter-in-law had stacked all the gifts neatly on the table. The flowers, too, had been arranged in vases. He checked the locked door and returned to sit at the empty table, thinking.

He had turned 50 today. So much to be thankful for. A devoted son. Nisha, a daughter-in-law who meant more than a daughter to him. Two grandkids he loved to spoil with little gifts of chocolates and toy cars. A flourishing career. Yes, life had been kind to him. He remembered his dead wife and felt a twinge of regret. These days, he couldn’t even picture her face without the aid of a photograph. It had been that long, so long since he’d been alone.

In bed, he tried to fall asleep. It had been a hectic day but it was only a little past nine yet. Sitting up again, he decided to open the presents. He picked out the largest one – a tray or a coffee table book or a wall clock, he figured. The package had been delivered that morning, way before the kids had turned up to surprise him with the cake. He had examined the present but found no name or return address. Rushing to work, he had put it aside, thinking he’d check it in the evening. Anyway, who but Nisha or his son could have sent it?

Carefully, he started unwrapping the present. Yes, it had to be a wall clock. Nisha had often remarked that his living room could do with one. The wrapping paper was a bright yellow – his favourite colour – and he took care not to rip it more than was necessary.

It was a framed picture. He turned it over and looked at the painting. A print of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. He put on his reading glasses and held it close, drinking in the beauty of the vivid, lifelike colours. The inviting warmth of the café. The cobbled street melting away into the darkness.  The tree whose leaves were all ruffled by the wind…

All of a sudden he stopped. WHO had sent him this? Who but Anindita had ever shared his passion for art, had known how much he would appreciate receiving this, his favourite painting?

His mind flew back 15 years, to the brief, unforgettable summer they had spent in Amsterdam. Collaborators on a work project, they had toured the city together, delighting in its pretty little churches, its canals and parks, windmills, landmark hotels and restaurants and, most of all, its museums. The Van Gogh museum was a mutual favourite and they’d returned to it again and again, spending hours admiring each painting, discussing every nuance of the master’s work.

Young and alone in a beautiful, alien city, it was hard not to fall in love in those heady weeks, at a time when both work and play conspired to bring them together. They’d both been married, yes, and not to each other. But even that didn’t hold them back for long. Days spent together discovering the city, melted into nights spent discovering each other.

Back then, the summer had seemed as if it would never end. But end it did. And with it came the end of their intense, short-lived romance. The soulmates had agreed to part ways, never to contact each other again – unless one of their situations changed. How that would happen, went unsaid. It was tacitly understood that neither of them would betray a spouse, would file for divorce and ruin the steady lives they each had built, half a world away.

And so the years had passed until the memory had turned into a habit. Pieces of music, bits of conversations, paintings, food, pictures of windmills, old photographs of Amsterdam, all reminded him of Anindita. He had worked at leaving her behind, throwing himself into his career, into finding sunny spots of happiness in this home, in his now-dead wife.

Only once had he tried to find her again, months after his wife had passed away. But by then it was too late. There were no mutual friends, no telephone number or address to work with. He had tried the Internet but even Facebook did not know the Anindita Mukherjee he had known. Perhaps it was just as well; she was probably still married, had a few kids or grandkids by now. Sometimes he tried to picture her as a middle-aged, fat woman, with age showing in and around her eyes.

Again he returned to the wrapping paper, trying to find a line, an address, something. In frustration, he tore it apart and watched as a piece of paper fluttered out. “Forgive me if I am intruding,” said her handwriting, “but if you can, I’d like to see you. 9 p.m. tonight. At the Bayview Café, Taj Apollo Bunder.” True to form, she had left the note unsigned.

9 p.m., she’d said. What was the time now? What was the time? He ran to the bedroom, to find his cell phone. 9.25. He changed hurriedly, groping at his desk for the car keys. Would she wait? He slammed the door and raced down the stairs, not waiting for the elevator to come up. This one rendezvous, he really must make.

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