He kept his hand on the head of the chair and pulled it back. He lowered himself on it and waved to the waiter. The waiter nodded and went off.
He was sitting at his usual spot by the window. The air outside was damp with rain. The clouds were heavy with thunder. The weather had been chilly for the past few days and the incessant battering had only compounded matters. The streets stank of filth. Water flowed down the glass windows of the café, transforming car lamps in the street into sources of magical radiance.
He looked around the restaurant. The regulars were all there — the gracefully-aged lady, the group of stock brokers and the coterie of doctors. All of them, like clockwork. A group of collegians was engrossed in celebration. There was a symphony amid the cacophony. The air was filled with the aroma of steaming coffee and myriad delicacies. He thought of the time when he was in college. The only excuse their group needed for a party was an occasion, any occasion. And then life happened. It had been a disaster. His parents died. His siblings cut all relations with him. His elder son got a job in the US and subsequently disowned him. Through it all, there was one thing that stayed constant – his darling wife. She’d been by his side at every turn. Her unwavering support was what got him through the pains and losses.
His mind was distracted by the sound of claps. A couple among the students was kissing. It was some kind of anniversary. Wow! How times had changed! He knew PDA wasn’t a big deal these days but this was still surreal. He sighed. If only his beloved had been with him. He pined for her as one yearns for water in a drought.
The waiter arrived with his order – coffee and aloo parathas (flatbreads stuffed with mashed potatoes). He knew it was an odd time for parathas. This was what she served him for breakfast. Right now, it was something between dinner and supper. He smiled to himself. He broke off a small part of the paratha from a side and put it in his mouth. The taste was marvellous, as usual. He pictured her, feeding him the parathas she’d prepared and asking whether they were any good. His eyes started welling up and he blinked continuously to stop tears from falling down. God! He turned to the left and rubbed his chin against his shoulder, closing his eyes to console himself. When he opened them, he saw an old couple walking in the street under a single umbrella. A wry smile formed on his lips.
What have I become, my sweetest friend,
Everyone I know, goes away in the end.
Old age was the bane of life. After years with the feeling that he knew his place in the world, this had what it’d come down to. A weakened body, fuzzy mind and long-dead friends. Companionship was what he craved. Life had passed him by and took everything he cherished with it. He looked at the group. They were sitting in pairs. His mind went back to college. His friends wanted him to propose to that girl. But he was never one of those dashers. The two of them were good friends but he could never bring himself to profess his love for her, in front of her. Until she did one day! And for 38 years, they’d been one soul.
He finished his meal and wiped his fingers on the tissue paper. He looked at the aged lady. They’d only known each other peripherally. But they knew they’d both lost their respective partners. She was sipping from her cup. Her face was wrinkled in a way that made her look smarter. Unlike most, ageing had made her more graceful. She didn’t need the fake makeup and surgeries.
Their eyes met. He thought of going to her table.
She noticed him looking at her. She thought he would come to her table.
He got up, clearing his throat. Then he walked towards her table.
If I could start again,
A million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find…………..a way.
She felt her heart rising in her chest. Her pulse quickened. She held her breath, lowering her head. He reached her table, slowed down for a moment, then walked on to the counter. She watched him go through the corner of her eyes and let out a sigh of frustration. She was expecting him to finally pick up some strength today. Her eyes got up to see him open the door of the café and look at the road. He opened his umbrella and stepped out. She shook her head in exasperation. It simply wasn’t meant to be. She gripped her cup with both hands and took another sip of the coffee.
There was the sound of a clearing of throat behind her. A gravelly voice said, “Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
He was standing there.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story in the comments. The featured text are lines from Johnny Cash’s Hurt. Here’s the video.
Thanks for reading.