The Friend

“I hope you liked the biscuits”, said my friend’s mother. “I made them at home.”

She had her back turned to me but I could almost see that hint of pride on her face.

“Yes, aunty”, I said.

Truth is, I am not crazy about biscuits. They are sweet and dry and get stuck in my teeth. Also, her biscuits were not very appealing. They were too soft; they didn’t look brown enough and they broke when I took them in my fingers. The act of dipping them in tea and eating them was seemingly impossible. But all the same, “yes, aunty” is what I said. In my heart of hearts, I cursed myself for lying to this woman who was likeable and gracious and carried herself well, in spite of everything that had happened. What else could I have said though? “No your biscuits are terrible! But your tea is drinkable. In fact, it is nice”?

The moment I completed this sentence in my head, she turned towards me. For a second, I froze and my gaze met hers. Had she heard me? Mothers, we all know, can read minds. Or maybe, I had unintentionally blurted it out aloud. She smiled. So, she hadn’t heard it after all. I breathed in relief.

“Sure”, she said. “You are being kind. I know they are terrible. I don’t make biscuits usually. They are not something our people make much.”

“Yes!” screamed my heart. “Please don’t make biscuits. You are a nice lady; but your biscuits suck!” On the outside, of course, I smiled awkwardly and mumbled something about that not being the case.

“Maybe, I should stick to cooking traditional breads. I do that well”, she continued. I started nodding my head in consent and quickly changed to shaking it sideways and mumbled something that sounded like “No, aunty. The biscuits are great, too.” But my mouth was stuffed with those very biscuits and my words were not very clear. But by stuffing my mouth so, I had unintentionally confirmed that the biscuits were, in fact, so good that I couldn’t stop eating them. She stared at me for a good two seconds during which I spoke some barely legible words right through the food in my mouth, sending small crumbs of the biscuit flying out. I lifted the cup of tea and hurriedly washed it all down my throat with a big swig of her tea and took a few more gulps to make sure the biscuit had all properly entered my alimentary canal and remnants were not left sticking around in my mouth, for I needed this mouth right now to talk to my friend’s mother.

Only, I did not know what to say.

She was standing in front of the kitchen table, turned towards me, with her back to the gas stove. The dining room and the kitchen were parts of the same room. In fact, the same room also housed the sitting area. The couch was on the other end of the room, and visitors could sit there around a small center table. That half of the room was separated from this half that housed the dining table and kitchen by a curtain that stretched from wall to wall. My friend’s mother walked towards the dining table that I was seated at.

“Actually I have a lot of free time these days”, she continued from where she had left off. “So, I try new recipes.”

She was by now very close to the table. The entire space from the curtain to the wall was not more than ten steps.

It was then that my friend appeared. He stood behind his mother and started making faces. All this while, I had a very straight look on my face, trying to be a gentle visitor since I was meeting her for the first time. My solemn face was to convey that I was listening to her with a lot of intent. Then, my friend put his fingers in his mouth and pulled his cheeks apart and he looked a lot like the Joker. I suddenly turned from his mother and looked at him, aghast that he should be making faces thus and I am sure the surprise showed on my face. He wagged his tongue.

His mother, having seen my gaze shift suddenly, turned towards him. She could not, of course, see him, so she turned back to me.

“Is something the matter?”, she asked. I realised that I had been looking at my friend all this while.

“No, aunty”, I said. To add to that, I shook my head vigorously, so that this added movement would make my words more believable and kill any suspicion in her mind.

She sighed. I thought she was going to sit opposite me at the table, but she continued standing and leaned on a meat safe a few steps away from the table. She sighed again. I felt lost. I didn’t know what to say. In the meanwhile, my friend stood beside her with a look of mock innocence on his face. He was so close to her, I was sure she could feel his breath on her neck. I avoided looking at him.

“You must have heard about it the same day”, she said.

I nodded my head. She was a little surprised, but she composed herself quickly again.

“Who told you?”

I took another sip of tea. The cup was getting lighter and so, I decided I couldn’t be taking too big gulps too fast, for it would then finish and I couldn’t ask for another cup.

“A mutual friend of ours was at the hospital where he was admitted. He called me,” I said. I realised I was barely able to form sentences correctly. I never really know what to say at times like this.

She sighed again. “I was told only after two days,” she said. “Everyone- his father, his cousins and his uncles, knew it. Only I was kept in the dark.

My friend, who had managed to keep quiet for so long, suddenly rolled his eyes over and started marching in circles around his mother, like a soldier in a parade- his arms fully stretched and his heels clicking on the ground. I frowned. It was getting really hard for me to concentrate on what she was saying.

“I know”, I said, nodding my head. “One of his cousins is a friend of mine and she told me that they hadn’t broken the news to you.”

I looked at her face and immediately regretted having told her that. A flash of sadness crossed her eye. I looked at the ground and then at my hands. I found myself staring at the bottom of my teacup. There was nothing there. So, now I was forced to look at her. I could see her eyes were a little wet.

“They thought it would break me,” her voice quivered, her lips pursed together. “My son was dead for forty-eight hours and I had not the slightest clue.” She looked away towards the window. “In my head, he was alive. I had spoken to him three hours before they say he died.”

She stopped. She shut her eyes. A tear rolled down each of her cheeks, all the way to her chin. At this point of time, my friend climbed the meat safe behind his mother. There were some bowls and steel tumblers lying there and he walked right on the top of them. I started, for I was afraid he would make the cutlery fall. I was also getting angry because it was clearly very rude of him to be prancing around like a monkey while his mother was grieving over his death. She opened her eyes with great difficulty. She sighed again and turned to me. My friend, at this point of time, waved his hand from where he was standing on top of the meat safe behind her and having drawn my attention, lifted two steel tumblers and balanced them- one on top of each other on his head. He then folded up his legs and sat there like a yoga teacher, levitating above his mother’s head.

I, of course, thought this was very rude, because in my culture, we are taught to never go over an elder person even when they are lying down, nor to jump over their legs, leave alone above their heads.

“You would expect a mother’s heart to break- having to cremate her son like that. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round? Wasn’t he supposed to cremate me when I die?”

She then caught sight of my gaze, which had unintentionally travelled in the direction of my friend. He was still levitating, but was now turned upside down and was rotating in the air like the hands of a clock- the tumblers, surprisingly, not falling off his head. And when his head reached six o’ clock, the tumbler was barely six inches over his mother’s head. In fact, had they fallen, they would have hit her head, bounced and landed on the floor, bouncing again and coming to a rest after a lot of clattering. I looked at the ground at the spot where the tumbler had fallen in my imagination.

“Would you rather not listen?” she asked, slightly anxious that I might not be too keen to listen to the story. But keen I was.

“Please, aunty”, I said, a little red in the face. “I want to hear it all.”

She paused for a moment and looked at me.

“Thank you for coming here. I know it must have been awkward. I saw your name on his phone. He had called you the same day, right?”

I nodded my head. I really wished I could get more tea. Her eyes looked sad. I imagined her bringing home her son’s mobile phone, sitting alone in her room and browsing through his call records, messages and photo galleries. How many idle afternoons had she spent thus after his death- hanging on to every string tied to his life? I remember the photos his cousin had sent me from his cremation- two cotton swabs stuffed into his nose, a coin placed on his forehead, his body draped in yellow cloth- lifeless. And as the funeral pyre caught fire, her son, a promising, lively, young, entrepreneur, turned into nothing but lump of burning flesh, smoke from which would rise and drift around, its sharp smell stinging people back into their senses. I tried to imagine where his mother- this elegant, composed woman, would have looked at as his body burnt. I really couldn’t picture any of it.

At this point, my friend vroomed across the room, squatting, as though he was seated on a motorcycle. That jolted me back to the present.

“Vroom! vroom!”, he circled around his mother. “Beep! Beep! Vroom!.” Like an ill-mannered child. I wanted to catch hold of his collar and pin him down to the ground. To me this seemed very insensitive, more so because he had on a motorcycle when he died. No, I corrected myself; he was on a motorcycle when he banged into a truck parked at the edge of the road. The men in the truck had stepped out, drunk and aggressive, and started yelling at him even as he lay there, injured and unable to lift the motorcycle off himself. And then, three of them took turns at beating him, They kicked him in the ribs, on his face, on his head, in his belly, until he puked blood and lay there unconscious. As a few other cars appeared on that desolate road, they got into the truck and drove away. Even as a crowd gathered, the blood from around him flowed across the road and under the shoes of those standing around him. He was dead on arrival at the hospital where his friend- my friend- was a doctor. He pronounced him dead. He told me the story that very night. I lived and worked in another city. Two thousand miles away.

Nobody must have told his mother the entire story. Parts of it, perhaps, but not the gruesome details.

“You know,” his mother spoke. “There were people who stood around him after his accident. Had they acted a little quicker, you know, maybe…”

I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t the accident that killed her son, but an unthought-of act of savagery- by someone who had nothing against him, knew nothing about him; someone who did it just out of a primal, spontaneous love of violence that is so innate to humans. I wanted to frame these thoughts into words and say it out aloud to her but my friend was writhing on the floor, clutching his heart in imagined agony and faking spasms, which I found disgusting. My disgust must have been clearly visible on my face for my friend’s mother said with a very pronounced annoyance in her voice, “you seem very distracted.”

I turned to her. She was irked. She must have been offended, for she was pouring her heart out to me and I was sitting there, looking around at nothing and seemingly paying no attention to her. I would hate me if I were in her place.

I mumbled an apology and looked at her with childlike innocence splashed all over my face like I never meant to offend her. It must have worked, for she sighed again and her face said that she forgave me.

“I am glad you came to see me,” she said again. But this time, she did not sound as grateful as she had the previous time. She was scanning my face for any sign of weird behaviour that I had been displaying all afternoon. I kept my eyes fixed on her, not once looking at my friend. I did let a glance slip to my teacup, though. There was a part of me that was imploring for another cup of tea. A part that could not understand why a human who earnestly wants a cup of tea could not implore to another human for a simple beverage that could be so easily served.

“My son had mostly good friends,” she continued.

I nodded. “I never found a soul who did not like him,” I said. And this was true. He was soft-spoken, helpful and a genuinely nice person- a rare find. That perhaps was the only thing which made go visit his house- a place I had never gone to before, for he had been a good man and I wanted to reach out to those he had left behind.

“He liked this one girl,” she said looking at me. “You might know her.” I did. We had all graduated together. He loved that girl. She didn’t love him back. I liked her, too. She didn’t like me back, either.

“I don’t know how things worked out with her but I wanted him to find someone and get married soon.” She thought for a while let out a smirk and shook her head- perhaps at the turn of events.

I was wondering why my friend who seemed to have lost all manners in his afterlife was not monkeying around. His mother was looking straight at her feet. So, I could afford a glance around the room. My friend was slouched on the floor, behind my chair, staring straight at me. He looked extremely sad and his eyes were wide open.

I looked back on what I had done or said. It suddenly struck me and I wanted to kick myself! Why did I have to think aloud in my head about the girl? He had never known that I had liked her. And now I laid my mind out open for him to read! He had read those lines straight off my head and they had hurt him. Not the part about me liking her but the fact that I had never told him any of it.

I looked back at his mother. She was still looking at the floor.

“This is it, I guess! My world has come crashing down around me. For the first few months, I couldn’t understand how I was to continue living, or why.” She paused.

One could feel the silence all around the room. I heard the hum of the refrigerator. Someone in the next house was hammering a nail. A TV was turned on somewhere in the next building.

“I know it’s just numbers. Thousands of young lives are lost every day. Perhaps my loss is not greater than that of the mothers of all those who die everyday. But it is great, nonetheless.”

My friend was now crouched, his hands around his knees, his head slumped forward, hanging upside down like a fly on the corner of the ceiling. His eyes- they were staring at me, looking right into my soul. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t have ulterior motives; that even though I wanted her to like me, I wanted her to like him back; that I was only overpowered by my Id, hanging on to the justification that if she didn’t like him, she would lose contact with him, and it would then be all right for her to like me; that he would have been OK with it. It was an assumption, a conclusion I had forgone. For I might have loved her, but I loved him more. I wanted him to read all this from my mind but I wasn’t putting it in words in my head and he was only staring at me with a piercing gaze. I stretched my hand towards him, offering to help him down from that corner of the ceiling

Suddenly I caught sight of his mother. She had been speaking all the time while these thoughts ran through my head, and I had not been listening to a word of what she had been saying. My hand was still stretched out- I reflexively pulled it back.

A spark of confusion flashed across her eyes and then it burst into flames.

Her face flushed in indignation. Who was this weird person who claimed to be her son’s friend? She opened her heart out him, telling him things she had not put into words before and he was clowning around. He was preoccupied and behaving like a schizophrenic.

She paused. “I think you should leave,” she said, looking at me, her voice devoid of any emotion. I gulped and slowly got on my feet. She slopped down on the chair opposite mine, put her head into her hands and started sobbing- the initial sobs turning gradually into a wail. Tears ran down the hands that covered her face. I stood beside her, lost. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder, to tell her that all is not lost, that I loved her son and though I hadn’t met him in five years, he was, to me, the brother that I never had. But even as I was hesitating to lift my hand, my friend’s mother, still sobbing, started rising- in the air. And along with her, the chair she was sitting on and the table she had her arm on, rose in the air. I first raised my head in amazement and then looked down to see my friend slowly standing up from under the table with his hands over his head. With one palm, he was pushing up the table and with other, the chair his mother was sitting on. He effortlessly lifted all of it into the air like it weighed nothing. And even as I stood there with an amalgam of amazement and displeasure splashed all over my face, my friend stood up straight, his hands still lifting the table and the chair, until his eyes were level with mine; the tips of our noses less than four inches apart, and he looked directly into my eyes, his gaze piecing into my soul. I couldn’t feel his breath, for breathing he was not. I felt a cold shudder run down my spine; that feeling when you freeze in a nightmare enveloped me, held me tight for a few seconds and then let me go. The sudden release of pressure left my heart alarmed. I felt a drop of sweat trickle down my temple. I felt little beads of sweat form on my forehead. I looked back at him. My friend of childhood, of teenage, dead and gone, standing before me in flesh and blood. Yet that flesh was cold and that blood didn’t flow. I wanted to hug him and I wanted to kick him at the same time. What did he mean by such insolence? By pulling childish pranks around his grieving mother? By judging me for something I couldn’t help feeling? For something I did in spite of myself? Had she loved either of us back, wouldn’t he have wanted us to be together after he had gone away? How dare me judge in death for what I did or felt in life?

I realised I was breathing heavily. His mother’s wail was coming to an end. She was sniffing her sobs away. In an instant, before I even realised it, the table had come back down. So gently, that when she took her hands away from her face, she hadn’t even realised that she had been lifted and made to float in the air. She sat there, her eyes dried up, the dry tears leaving a trail on her cheeks. My hands hovered over her shoulder for a good few seconds but I could not place them there to comfort her, to be her son for a minute.

I picked up my car keys from the table and stammered a farewell and walked towards the curtain, beyond which lay the sitting room and the door.

“Thank you again for coming. It was very kind of you,” she said. And yet, her words sounded cold, even sarcastic, as though all her emotions, all her warmth had been washed away by her tears. I paused at the curtain; I turned back. I scanned the room for my friend, but he was no longer there. I couldn’t say a word. I nodded in reply to his mother’s words, even though she wasn’t looking at me. I walked across the sitting area and out of the door.

The sudden light outside hit my eyes, hurting them. I squinted a bit.

My shoes crunched the gravel as I walked towards where my car was parked.

I turned the key and pulled the handle of the door but it wouldn’t open. I peered inside the car through the tinted window and saw my friend sitting on the driver’s seat: seat belt fastened, his hands on the steering wheel, his face dead straight, staring at me through the glass, not one muscle on his face moving.

And no matter what I did or how much I pulled, my door wouldn’t open.


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