This is a story about those bonds that start and end way before its time.
Her hands held more than they could hold. She struggled with the shopping bags and made her way out of the market place. The late December breeze caressed her untied hair. As she looked up from her preoccupations, to call for a rickshaw, the softly-lit lights of houses on the hill took her breath away. She stood in awe for some time. This place did this to her time and again, all throughout the day. One day she would be in awe of the sunrise, the next day of the sunset, and so on. She had never been to a hill station before, until she was posted to this one for a project a few months ago. Her love for the place deepened with the deepening winter and receding tourists. Taking in the beauty of the sight at dusk with a breath, she called for a rickshaw.
“Excuse me”, a voice tapped from behind.
Responding to it with a backward glance, she looked on questioningly.
“I…I am new to this place and was searching for a bookstore. You are co-incidentally carrying a bag of a bookshop. Could you direct me towards it, which is if you don’t mind?”
“Just round this corner.”
She pressed her lips into a forced smile, gave him a nod, and was about to leave.
“Do you need help with those bags?”
“Thanks but no thanks. I am perfectly fine,” she turned to give him a smile this time and took in his appearance. She concluded he looked pretty pleasant for a stalker or psychopath or whatever he was.
“You are swaying under the burden of those bags.”
“Watch me manage,” she retorted and moved away, leaving him flabbergasted.
Warming his hands inside the pockets of his jacket, he looked on as she left. He had caught sight of her while whiling away his time in the market, taking a break from the group outings of his friends. He was rummaging through a stack of gloves, when she came and stood next to him, searched through some fluffy-looking socks, bargained and bought a pair. He was drawn towards her from the word go. He was clueless if it was the funny way in which she was already carrying too many bags and still adding to it, or the determined way in which she went about her work, that glued his eyes to her. He stood at the stall and watched her move away, watched her hair dance to the breeze, watched her eyes widen at something or the other, watched her stumble her way through the market. She seemed alone and yet not lonely. He couldn’t stop himself from going and talking to her when she stood staring at something ahead. He didn’t know what came over him while he did that. Maybe it was his life-long fascination for unknown people and their unknown stories.
The horn of a passing car called him back from his musings. It was already dark and he headed back to the hotel with unhurried steps.
He scribbled on the notepad with rapt attention. The coffee sat cold on the table in one corner of the bookstore with him. He had lost touch with the passing time.
“I didn’t know I talked to a writer last evening.”
He stumbled out of his world of words and his heart did a somersault.
“Not a good one at that, to disappoint you,” he managed to utter.
“Would it be too creepy for you if I take a seat here?”
“It would be much less weird than randomly coming up and talking to me out of nowhere at the market.”
It all began there, at that first of the many laughs that were yet to come. She was a daily visitor to the only bookstore in town, and today, he was sitting in her beloved corner-most seat beside the small, glass window with a wooden frame. She recognised him after a moment’s consideration.
She recognised his tousled hair, hooded jacket, and unassuming stance from the evening before.
Dilly-dallying for a while whether to make a move or not, she decided to take a chance thinking how dangerous could a cute guy immersed in writing with an ink pen in a bookstore be.
They dug into the plate of salad together. This was their third lunch out in a row. The routine was simple- meet at the bookstore, talk for hours, catch up with lunch together, and leave. He left to be with his group of friends and she left to work on her project. Numbers were exchanged as were stories; online requests were accepted as were each other’s compliments and digs. They hit it off like a house on fire.
“I hated the finale of that show”
“I know, keeping the main characters alive till the end is too main-stream.”
“Did you ever shoplift?”
“Six books at one go from a book fair. Beat that!”
“Excuse me! We are just a point behind in the league table. The cup is so ours in a few games”
“Hah, kiss our *** when we kiss the cup”
“Read that story you wrote again, the one that makes no sense.”
“It made sense in a short story competition and won me a free trip to Paris.”
He loved the way her eyes expressed the gasp of surprise, excitement, fear, refusal or elation before her voice could. He waited for her to turn her head sideways, to take a look at her ear-rings, which changed every day. She was a bundle overflowing with stories, more than what his pen could ever scribble. She loved his unassuming laughter at all her tales. She loved it when he read out a few of his written stories and smiled when she deduced them in a million different, ridiculous ways. She could feel his affection for the words and felt she could interminably stare at those lowered, soft eyes as he read them with a gently-creased brow.
“We are planning to stay on for a couple of days more. How does a movie this weekend sound?”
“Sounds like a plan,” she winked. “We could go for the matinee show and cook an early dinner at my place.”
“Pack an extra pair of converse, man”
“Could I skip the trekking and return early? I have some plans.”
“What is with you? You have hardly been with us since the last few days, and even if you have been, you seem to be lost somewhere else. It is supposed to be a group adventure.”
“It is that new friend of his, the one he met at the market-place and keeps on meeting again and again.”
“You can’t be serious! What do you think you are doing? How long do you think this is going to last? Till you detrain at the Old Delhi platform? Just think twice before getting into this to-and-fro distance relationship.”
“He is right. Once the bubble of enchantment breaks, you will just regret it.”
He could see the afternoon rays of the sun on her tinged hair. They were sharing the glow of a shared jest. He could see the smile on her lips light up her eyes or the glow of her eyes light up her face at the very mention of something she was passionate about. Amidst the ruckus made by his friends, in his mind, he was already cracking up with laughter beside her. Their shared love for winter, beaches, books, sports teams, arguments, and anything and everything fun under the sun was enviable. His friends had called it the bubble of enchantment, but if he ever had to write about what they shared, he would prefer to call it- in a simple word- magic. They shared magic. But magic has never been for real? Has it? Or has it been too real to be true?
“Would you like to have some tea or coffee?”
The helper’s voice at the bookstore broke her thoughts.
“Make it a coffee with extra milk, please.”
It was Christmas Eve. The evening was beautiful. She stared at the pine trees afar from her beloved corner of the bookstore, while travelling to and fro from a Saturday afternoon-
Her calls went answered. She had rushed to the theatre from work. She was already running late. In her few months here, at a research institute, she had never been so full of plans and life. As planned in the last lunch she had with him a day ago- she was to meet him at the theatre today. Upon reaching the place, she quickly glanced through the crowd. He was nowhere to be seen. Tickets in hand, she called him a couple of times in vain, reclined her head beside a counter, and waited- in vain.
A text at night apologising for his sudden departure as his group had planned to leave that morning.
“Pack this cake up with the red, glossy paper.”
She looked on as the Christmas crowd filled the market. The cake she bought looked delicious. She savoured the whiff of the baked heaven in her hand. Her hands full with packets, tumbling and stumbling, she turned to leave, and was struck by the sight of the hill on Christmas. Taking the sight in, she recalled last week at a sweep, and smiled at how, like life, she would never be able understand it. Sighing, she made her way for a rickshaw, and, for just a second, almost waited for a voice to call her back. When nothing happened, she recalled one of her own favourite quips- if only life had been a rom-com.