“Leave me alone please, will you?” John said.
His assistants looked at each other. They had been strictly instructed to be with him every moment. “But sir,” one of them started to speak, “Mr. Nathan asked us…”
“I know,” John said in a slow, mellow voice. “I am just here. You guys can go outside, have a look around. This place is really nice. You did notice the white beach sand, didn’t you?”
“Karim,” he kept his hand on his shoulder, “Can you allow me some privacy, please. Nothing will happen to me inside. It is safe here.”
Karim made no further attempt to protest. After all, the old man just wanted to be alone inside. He signaled his subordinates to go out. “Sir, if you need anything, we are just outside. I will check every fifteen minutes.”
John said nothing. He seemed lost. Karim left the room, the only room in the old cottage.
John looked around; no one had been to this place in sixty years. But the more astonishing part was that the place had stood for sixty years. It was nothing but a small cottage; a small cottage near the sea shore; a small cottage supported by bamboos, while the roof was covered with hay; a small cottage where he spent his small childhood.
John was seven when he started going out with his fisherman father to the sea in his small, battered boat. His father didn’t mind an extra pair of hands to help. The gulf was seldom violent and the catch was good. His mother had died when he was four and there was no one with whom he could be left. So, most of his childhood was spent amidst the sea, catching fish.
John came back to the present. He saw the holed walls. And what walls were they but bamboo supporting hay and clay. The hay had come off at most of the places, black and gooey with the clay and dirt. On the floor they cast an image of a sieve, oval patches of light making them look bright and beautiful. John walked towards the wall. As he stood near it a weird feeling caught him. He slowly moved his hand forward to touch the hay and clay mixture between the bamboos. And then he stopped, he stopped just before touching the wall. He was sweating. His hand started shaking, and his breaths caught pace.
It will fall again. I will ruin it again.
There was John, playing with bamboo sticks while his father built up the structure. His mother was calling out to both of them to have their lunch. John rushed to his mother. She caught him up in her arms and swung him around. Then she pointed to his father and asked John to call him. John ran up to his father and pulled him by his arm. His father looked down at him and cheered him up, “Come on son. John, pull me. Take me to mama.” And John pulled. He pulled his father to his mother where she had laid out two bowls of fish soup.
“Where is my bowl?” John asked.
“Come here,” his mother signaled him to come in her lap. “Will you have it with me?”
John sat up in her lap as she fed him the soup from her bowl.
“I’ve got to finish this by today,” his father said. “We don’t have any other place to stay, and it gets cold at nights.”
When his father set off to work again, John went back to playing with the bamboo sticks. He played around a while when his father called him. “John, stop playing with those. I need them.” His father came and took away the sticks. He ran after him, unable to keep pace with his walking speed.
“Dad, are you making a new home for us?”
John ran up to the structure his father was building. Bamboo sticks were joined to make the support for the walls. His father was busy sharpening his tools when he heard John cry out. He ran up to him. John was under the bamboo structure he had made, crying loudly. His father lifted the bamboos from over him. “I just touched it, and it fell on me,” John said, sobbing. His mother calmed him down. He was cut at a few places but nothing serious had happened. But John was terrified. “Mom, the house won’t fall on me again?”
“No dear, once it is complete it will be the safest place. Nothing will happen to you inside.”
Only when his mother assured him again and again did he step in inside the house; though he never went near the walls again.
No, it won’t fall. It won’t. Not this time.
He touched the hay. It felt cold. He moved his hands all over the wall and laughed. He roared with laughter like a child. And when he stopped, his cheeks were wet with his tears.
That night he slept clinging to his mother. It was very cold outside, and the cottage wasn’t complete. They slept on the uncovered ground, the chill creeping into their veins like trees slowly sucking up their life from soil. Through some gap in the bamboos the chilly air would enter and freeze them all. He clung to his mother like an ape. He never slept like that again.
Karim opened the rotten door. He saw the old, frail figure standing in a corner, gazing at the floor. He felt pity for the man, for the old man who was dying. John was suffering from brain tumor. The doctors had given him a month of time, a maximum of two. Since then his son, Nathan, had become very watchful. He would spend hours with John, talking to him, going out with him for walks, and even canceling all his afternoon appointments just to have lunch with him. He loved him a lot. He knew the hard work his father had put in for building up the company. He had seen his father toil and slog, and still always finding time enough to play with him, tell him stories of his grandfather and the seas. If there was anything Nathan loved more than the company, it was John.
So when John asked him to let him go south, to the gulf, for a day, Nathan was bewildered. He knew the place meant a lot to John, but his health was critical. Karim had been given strict instructions never to leave John alone. A medic team also had accompanied them to keep constant check.
Karim looked at the seventy-five year old figure in front of him. Silver strands of hair, though few, were neatly groomed. The forehead showed the lines of experience, tension and ageing, all blended together to give three thick lines of wrinkled skin. The eyes were deep inside the sockets, as if they never existed.
Poor man, only god knows his pain, Karim thought and closed the door behind him.
But John was never in pain. He was for a short while, when he had just tripped over a stone while running on the beach and his knees were hurt, but as his father applied the ointment sitting on their bed, a foot thick of grass and hay, John had even forgotten the meaning of pain. He chatted with his father as he rubbed his knees.
“Dad, why did we put mom in that box?”
“Because now that’s her home.”
“Will she never come to visit me?”
“She does every night, when you sleep she comes and kisses you.”
“Dad,” John looked at this father, “Does she kiss you too?”
His father laughed, “Yes, of course.”
“I miss mom.”
“I miss her too, son.” And the father took the son in his arms, holding him tightly to his chest, wiping away his tears.
John sat on the ground. He wiped his cheek, wet with water running from a dark, deep cave. The cave had taken years to form, sixty years. Beaten with the flashes of electric arcs and red hot metal, weathered with the hot air and dust surrounding him, and carved with the computers, those beautiful white protrusions, called eyes, were now seated deep inside the sockets, old and tired.
He had joined the company as an operator of blast furnaces, and retired as the chairman of a group of metal companies, making every known commercial metal. He climbed the steps of success with his hard work and dedication, progressing in life, both, professional and personal. He was satisfied that he could give his son the education and comforts which he couldn’t get. He was satisfied that he could live according to what his heart desired. He could choose.
But there was always a lingering desire somewhere down in his heart which never let him forget the old cottage near the shore. There was always a hope that he would go back there once again. There was always a hope that he would find his mother and father there, waiting for him to come home.
John was fifteen. He was standing at the door, looking inside the cottage. It was empty. He shifted the bag from his hands to his shoulders. There was no point in living there anymore. He had to sell the boat to buy the coffin for his father. There was some money left for him to go north, start a new life. Just before closing the door for the last time, he murmured to himself, “I promise that I’ll come here again, mom.”
He lay down on the ground and closed his eyes. A smile came to his lips. For the first time in sixty years did he feel so peaceful, so satisfied. It was all so silent; he felt he could hear the water flowing under the ground. He opened his eyes. He found himself standing near a white tree; a white tree with a huge white trunk and white branches and white leaves. He looked around, there was a waterfall. He stood at the base of the waterfall, white water lathering up near his feet; white water, light, smooth and cool. He bent down to touch the water. He took a sip with his cupped hands. It was soothing, relieving. He felt the pain in his head go away; all the heaviness and dizziness disappeared. He felt strong and energized, like he was young again.
He heard footsteps. He turned around. He could see two figures approaching him. They were clad in white attires flowing behind them like air. A calm, divine aura surrounded them. He instantly knew who they were. He ran. He ran with his new, strong legs. He ran so fast that he felt like flying. When he came to a stop near the two figures, he laughed; he laughed like a four-year old.
“I told you I would come,” he said, “didn’t I, mom?”
His mother smiled at him. “You’ve grown so big.” His father patted his shoulders. John hugged them both.
The three started to walk towards a golden gate. John turned around. He saw Karim standing in a corner, talking to Nathan on phone, while a few medics were surrounding his smiling face, trying something with his chest. He smiled at them.
“I told you nothing would happen to me. I am safe now.”