Neeta sighed as she sat down at dining table. The cake looked lovely. She was pleased with her effort. A heart shaped strawberry cake decorated with freshly sliced strawberries and a “number 15” candle on it. Fifteen years of married life, that’s what she was celebrating tonight. As usual Atul was late. He would have some plausible excuse, some urgent work, an unexpected client, a delayed meeting, something..…and as usual, she would smile and tell him it was ok. She sometimes wondered if he realized how much it hurt her, when the little things that mattered to her, didn’t matter to him at all.
But he was not a bad husband. He loved her to bits and she was aware of it too. He was just not as expressive as she had wished he would be. He never told her how much he loved her. He had just assumed she’d know it. He had done everything to keep her happy, and she was thankful to him for it. And though the love was there, the passion had become less and less intense with each passing year. The worst part was that he thought it was perfectly normal to gravitate towards a bond like friendship from a bond as intense as being lovers.
She sighed again as she looked at the spread before her. She had been cooking for him practically all day, when most wives would have insisted on dining at some fancy restaurant, given the occasion. Not that they couldn’t afford it, rather she felt it was a statement of her love for him. But knowing him like she did, he would probably not even notice the enormous effort she had put into everything. She straightened the ribbon on the gift box she had packed for him. It was the same every year, a shirt, a tie, a bottle of his favorite perfume and a pack of hand embroidered handkerchiefs. And like always, he’d smile and give her a warm hug. So much for celebrations!
She rested her head on the table, thinking about him. There was something about his hug that melted her heart even today. She felt so much secure resting upon his hairy chest. Her worries almost instantly seemed to evaporate. Even though they spoke less, words never seemed important between them. But there was so much left unsaid that she wished they would spend some time together and speak to their hearts content. Maybe he could tell her how much he loved her and what her presence in his life meant to him. Yeah…maybe someday!
The doorbell rang, waking her up from her thoughts. It must be Atul, she thought as she opened the door.
“Hi” Atul smiled as he brought out a bought out a bouquet of purple orchids from behind him, surprising her. “Happy Anniversary, my love,” he said drawing her close, and placing a tender kiss on her lips.
So unlike Atul, she thought, trying to smell his breath before she quietly withdrew from him. The smell of his perfume mixed with his sweat lingered in the air around her. He didn’t smell like he was drunk. Why on earth was he behaving so weirdly! She tried to think when was the last time he actually surprised her like that! She drew a blank.
“Oh dear, you spent all day cooking for me?!” he exclaimed looking at the spread on the table. “We could have gone out somewhere.”
Another first. He actually noticed her cooking?
“Come here,” he beckoned, taking her hands into his, “Have I told you how beautiful you look?”
Her expression changed from one of surprise to one of doubt. What in the world was wrong with Atul?
“You have the world’s most beautiful pair of eyes that drive me insane just looking into them.”
“Atul….I think....” she wanted him to stop this madness. She liked his former self better. This romance and crap didn’t suit him at all.
“…Shhhh…..” he tucked away a stray hair from her forehead, behind her ear, “I love you, Neeta, more than anyone in the world. I may not say this often, but you are the only one I ever loved. And I want you to know this.”
Tears filled Neeta’s eyes as she looked at her husband. It was like a wish had suddenly been granted. While she stood mummified, still unable to believe he was saying all this, he gave her the warmest hug he had given her in years.
“I’ll just freshen up and then let’s eat this awesome food. Later I have another surprise for you,” he winked, as he went to their room.
Neeta nodded, still half teary, half happy. As she arranged the plates and cutlery, humming a tune, she heard the doorbell ring again. Who could it be this late into the night, she wondered. The kids were at her mother’s place and she knew they wouldn’t be back until morning, unless there was an emergency. Half fearing that something had gone wrong; she rushed to open the door.
“Madam, Inspector Raut,” a smart officer stood at her door, his police cap under one arm and a plastic bag in the other hand. “I’m sorry, but we found a body at the Somwarpet railway crossing today afternoon, and this wallet, watch and visiting card were found along with this briefcase,” he said showing her the contents. We believe it belongs to one Atul Joshi, and the address in the driving license found in his wallet says that he stays here…Now, madam….”
The rest of what he spoke was a blur and Neeta found her head reeling under the barrage of information the policeman had given her. How could that be? Hadn’t Atul just walked in, surprised her like he had never done before, given that bouquet of her favorite flowers, held her, kissed her, and professed his love to her? No, there must be some misunderstanding; the body could not belong to Atul! She must tell the policeman that… or better still, she could just call Atul and he could let the policeman see that he was alive.
She looked at the center table where she had just kept the bouquet of flowers Atul had given her.
How could that be?
Was the policeman telling the truth? Could it really be Atul? She had read somewhere, about people who died unnatural deaths; their spirits often visited their loved ones one last time. Was that why Atul was behaving so weirdly? Had he come to say goodbye to her?
As she grappled with the news, she felt more and more suffocated, and unable to breathe. She shut the door on the policeman’s face and dropped down to the floor. Atul was no more? How was she to deal with this? What would she tell her children? Before she knew it, she had slipped into unconsciousness.
The door bell rang repeatedly and it was quite some time before the sound eventually woke up Neeta. Her eyes were moist and suddenly realizing that the policeman would be at the door, she broke into a loud sob all over again. Gathering her courage she walked to door and unfastened the bolt.
“Oh my god Neeta, what happened? Are you ok? I was worried sick. I have been ringing the bell for ages! Did you doze off waiting for me?”
Was that Atul she was seeing? Were her eyes playing tricks on her again? She stood speechless searching for the policeman, but there was no one else at the door other than Atul.
“Are you angry I am late, Neeta? I was stuck in a meeting in office. You know that client Batukbhai and Jamnalal, don’t you? They…..”
“…..Shhhh….” she placed her palm on his lips, “Its ok,” she smiled, hugging him ever so tightly, like she’d never let him go. “I love you Atul…..I love you very much,” she whispered in his ears, as he hugged her back wondering what was suddenly wrong with her.