Paper Thin

Via Daily Prompt: Volunteer

She woke up before the alarm rang. It was 5.30 in the morning. As usual.

She brushed her teeth, finished her business in the bathroom, ransacked her fruit basket for a quick pre-workout snack. As usual.

She warmed up to Coldplay and then threw herself into her hour long workout, with mellow instrumental rock playing in the background. As usual.

At nearly 7 she took a slug from her bottle of water. The workout and cool down were done. She was ready for the day. As usual.

She could hear her father-in-law shuffling about in the next room. It was time to serve him his morning tea. But first came the unlocking of the numerous bolts and locks of the ginormous two-storeyed mansion. It was another one of her usual morning rituals. They didn’t have guards, they didn’t have house-help to do it for them. And her husband and father-in-law were the only one’s occupying the two floors of the 50-60 year old mansion. Where they stayed, all the houses were around the same age. It was an old area, characterized by dusty, winding roads where the tarmac obliged the stray boulders and the rambling foliage, foliage so terribly enmeshed that it was hard to tell stone from root and vice versa. Her FIL was old and frail, but sharp as ever. And her husband was never a morning person. That meant that she was the only volunteer , as usual.

She went down to unlock the main gate where she knew the milk and the two newspapers would have been delivered in their respective baskets. One newspaper was not enough. There had to be two because her FIL didn’t like sharing his own with anyone, or paying for the bill. She unlocked the huge gate, heaved it open and took the milk in one hand and as usual, reached out to the other basket for the two newspapers. But they weren’t there! Unusual.

She looked around at the other houses. Sure enough, each ancient gate with its own wicker basket held its own copy of their flavor of newspaper. Just not their own. She called up the delivery boy.

“Of course I dropped them off. Right in those green baskets of yours. Two copies of the X Times. Look around, maybe they fell into a shrub or something.” And the delivery boy hung up. She went over to her immediate neighbour’s, Mr. H. He was an X Times subscriber too. His paper was missing but that was usual. He was an early riser too. She went over to every gate in the vicinity. They all had newspapers. As usual.

She shuffled back to her place, deep in thought. Just then her FIL called out to her from the porch, “Where’s the newspaper? Did you lose it again?”

She looked up at him irritatingly. Why’d he have to always start in an accusatory tone? But she mellowed her voice to a cool hiss “I didn’t lose it, Papa. It’s not here, but that’s not my fault.”

“Oh, its never your fault. Sometimes its the neighbour’s dog, sometimes its the kid from No.15, sometimes its the delivery boy who missed it. But you never miss it, isn’t it?” he looked down at her from his bespectacled nose, disapprovingly, as usual. His precious son had married beneath him. And he never let her forget that.

She burned with the fire of a thousand unspoken comebacks but tried to reason with him instead “Papa, please. We’re out in the open. The neighbours might hear you…”

“Like I care if they do. I already am the butt of their jokes, thanks to you, what’s a little argument in the open, eh?” he taunted her, alluding to her inferior class, as usual.

She would’ve written it off as one of his usual profane outbursts if he hadn’t just muttered “baanjh” – sterile, just as she started to walk away from him.

She couldn’t believe her ears! She spun around to face him.”For God’s sake, Papa. Have some shame! As if it isn’t enough for you to treat me like a pariah, you have to taunt me with something that isn’t my fault?” Incredulity laced her voice and shivered in the trembling of her hands. Had she ever belonged to this house, this family? Had those 10 years amounted to nothing at all, or did it all just boil down to an heir to a crumbling mansion and a name?

“Isn’t your fault? How is that not your fault? You ensnared my only son, forced him into marriage when he didn’t even know that you could bear no children…”

“I didn’t know that myself at the time…” she hollered.

“…as if I would believe that!” he hollered back. They shook in anger, each staring at the other in undisguised hatred.

A crowd had begun to gather, eager for a free-for-all, something by way of morning entertainment and a week’s worth of parlour talk.

Her husband ran out to them and stood between them to break up the fight.

“What are you two upto? I can hear you all the way upto the second floor!” he tried to calm them down but the FIL taunted him, “That’s what you get when you marry riff-raff! She has no decorum, no tehzeeb, no sense of sobriety whatsoever…”

“I don’t have decorum and sobriety? What are you doing Papa? Do you have to always remind me of my background, my family? Do you always have to find fault in everything I do? 10 years…10 years it’s been since I got married to your son and not once have you let me feel welcome here. I took care of you, I bore all your ill-tempered outpourings, all your profanities. I pay all your bills so we can keep this house to ourselves and this is how you repay me?”

“Nobody asked you to pay our bills…”

“Well someone needed to or we’d have lost this house a long time back and everything in it that you hold dear.” She alluded to her husband’s joblessness and the mountain of debt she slowly, single-handedly paid off.

“You see that, son? She’s so money-minded, she’s now telling us that she’s the one who bailed us out!”

“Well, its the truth, father.” The husband whispered. His admission hit the father like a slap on the face.

“Your mother must be turning in her grave….at the thought that her only son is ganging up against his poor father. She must weep in despair that her son chose to marry trash who has usurped not just the house she loved, but eclipsed the future of a fine family name as well with her barrenness!”

There was a moment of humming silence between the three before the storm in her voice broke out, “That’s it! I’ve had enough… enough!” She started to shake uncontrollably. Hot tears rolled down her pallid face, yet unable to shed 10 years worth of grief.

“I’m sorry for marrying you… I’m sorry for ever believing that my education and my qualifications were enough to elevate me in your father’s eyes… I’m sorry that I could give you no children, because of course that’s the only thing women are fit for…that and keeping a house….I’m sorry but I’m done!”

“No, honey, please…” the husband tried to placate her but she shrugged him off, both in body and in mind.

“No! This is as far as I can take it. I’m sorry but I have to go now!” She went back into her room, pulled out a suitcase and started packing up. She had had enough of carrying the burden of trying to live upto a famous name. She was bone tired of his demands, of his insolence. She was wearied from trying to maintain this paper thin relationship that threatened to tear at the mere hint of a storm.

Her husband tried to stop her. He cried, he begged, he even told her he would come along, leave it all to be by her side. But she only replied, “You have a name to live upto, and someone to take care of,” and she walked out of that rusty relationship and that creaking gate, while her husband, his father and the nieghbours looked on.

*******

The gardener turned away from the gate and walked back to Mr. H’s, mulling over the morning’s fracas. Mr. H asked him about what had happened.

“Oh, Mr. H! You should have seen it….That poor woman… she is such a kind lady. She would always serve me tea and biscuits  whenever I tended to their lawns. That man’s foul mouth pushed her away, forever. She walked out on her husband right now, poor guy… And to think it it was all for a newspaper!” he shook his head sadly.

“Newspaper?”

“Yes! It seems she couldn’t find their newspaper and that man started accusing her of things. That’s when it all got so out of hand…”

“Oh my God! What have I done?” Mr. H swore in agony and remorse as the import of his thoughtlessness dawned on him.

“What happened, Mr. H?”

“I….this is all my fault!” he sat down suddenly, his old knees giving way from guilt.

“I forgot to inform the delivery boy to start delivering papers to me again and this morning I thought….I thought I would just borrow their paper for an hour before she comes to take it…as usual…but I was too late…God! I was too late!”

©Pradita Kapahi, 2016
 

 

 

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