The professor wakes every morning at exactly 5:45 a.m., one of the many habits accrued during his military days that still stubbornly persists, like the spit shined shoes he labors over for hours every morning or his inability to park a vehicle in a spot front first. Always back in, for a quick and easy getaway.
All useless now, like evolutionary remnants of a extinct species. The ironed handkerchief that somehow finds its way into his front pocket each morning is like a vestigial tail, more a curiosity than a necessity, something that marks him as a creature from another generation, another time, another era. There is no longer anyone to impress with his sharp dress and yet still old habits persist. And how cruelly they persist.
The professor woke at exactly 5:45 a.m. and opened his eyes to darkness. He knew it would be four hours and fifteen minutes before Nirmala, his servant, arrived to make his chai so he could take his painkillers, three tiny white tablets stamped B213. Until then, pitch black agony, as he lay on his back fumbling in the dark beneath mounds of blankets, trying in vain to massage his aching, arthritic knees.
This year the pain was the worst it had ever been; since his wife left, over five years ago now, it had gotten progressively worse. What started as a slight pain in the joints of his hands spread like vicious poison throughout his body, rendering the short walk from his bedside to the kitchen a marathon run on shards of broken glass.
As he lay in bed that morning, unable to fall asleep and counting down the time till Nirmala’s arrival, he recalled when it used to be better. When he would spend all day outside in the garden, kneeling over his Azalias, gardenias, and roses. Returning inside for a cup of mid-afternoon tea triumphant, dirt caked under his nails and sweat on his brow. Or when he would venture off his estate, Ricky trailing alongside him on his long walks down the hillside, to the bazaar or to the bank.
In those years, with his marriage to Lucy decaying, how he had relished those walks. In the heat of an argument he would leave the house for hours, slaloming down the snaking trails of the mountain, losing himself in the forests and the fog that clung to the valley.
When he returned, huffing and puffing his way toward the gate, Ricky scampering along behind him, the sight of his tiny cottage wreathed in smoke from the fireplace never failed to thaw his heart. The bedroom window would be fogged and glowing with candlelight where he knew Lucy sat reading one of her mystery novels.
Slowly he would make his way inside. He took his time, tying Ricky up outside, knocking the dirt and muck from his boots before leaving them at the door. He would creep his way silently up the staircase, on tiptoe, and slip into the bedroom where Lucy sat in her favorite green armchair: feet up, facing the door, her nose buried in an Agatha Christie or a P.D. James.
She would pretend she did not notice him; they were fighting after all. So he would sidle over, tail between his legs, like Ricky after being caught digging up the garden, and stand there looking at her with the most doe-eyed, sad-faced expression he could muster. She would continue to ignore him; it was all part of the dance.
But eventually, as she came to the end of a page and made to turn to the next one she would let her eyes momentarily flicker up to her husband, suddenly feigning surprise at his appearance.
This was his cue. In that second that their eyes met he would explode into a flood of I’m sorrys, you were rights, and I love yous before finishing with a flourish, pulling a gift or trinket from behind his back, something he had picked up on his way back from the bazaar. It was usually tangerines. Lucy loved tangerines.
Of course she forgave him. She had grown accustomed to her husband’s ways over the years and usually before he and Ricky had made their way even halfway down to the bazaar had already decided to forgive him.
They would make love. With whatever strength remained from his trek back up the mountainside he would pick Lucy up right out of her chair, Ten Little Indians clattering to the floor, and lay her out on the bed like he used to do when they were young. They were no longer young of course, but their passion remained; they would spend all evening in each other’s arms, till dark clouds thundered in, their reverie broken by the plink of rain upon the roof and Ricky howling to be let in.
Now, the idea of sex, the thought of their old, wrinkling, sagging bodies creaking together in mentronomic rhythm, repulsed him. It was too damn cold anyways. In the end, it was all just a reminder of what he used to be, what he no longer was, and what he was now: an aged former colonel, a retired professor of diplomatic sciences, living alone in an isolated cottage high in the mountains of northern India who could not even get out of bed in the morning by himself without being half dosed on painkillers.
He had contemplated suicide before. For a man of his age and condition it would not be unheard of…but while sometimes in his darkest moments, when it was all lightning and hailstorms outside his window, he would allow his thoughts to wander to how it could be done (leaving the gas on? the revolver in the drawer?) most of the time he rejected the notion with every fiber of his body. It was not how he was raised.
Before his time in the service, even before his time in England, he remembered childhoods spent with his father under the stars. He came from a family of goat herders native to the region, as hardy as the beasts they ushered up and down the mountainside.
He used to accompany his father on trips with their herd, all the way to Char Dukan at the base of the valley. In those days the trail was steep and uncut; they would be forced to leave in the height of the winter storms in order to make it to the first springtime market to sell the wares.
He remembered one winter in particular, one of the coldest recorded, when he was on on the trail with his father. They had slogged their way down miles of half-melted snow, chasing goats along the way when a storm had unpredictably blown through. Hail came first, pelting down on their heads and sending the goats into a frenzy; they scattered. And then came the snow, a flurry so thick and potent it blanketed the hillside in minutes and pulled a white sheet over their eyes, obscuring their vision. Caught unawares, they were lucky to escape with their lives.
Hours later, when the storm abated, father and son were found huddled close together under the shelter of an old fir tree, both shivering and shaking in the cold. They had survived. But thier goats were nowhere to be found. Their only source of income, their livelihood, what had sustained their family for generations, gone in a matter of hours.
It was nighttime. They sat hunched over the fire. It crackled and hissed, shooting embers into the air like fireflies. Normally, the professor would have jumped and chased them through the night, but tonight the mood was different; he watched his father’s face.
The glow off the fire cast deep shadows over most of his fathers weathered face, but his eyes stood out, staring beyond the fire, staring beyond the trees, staring into nothing. The professor must have only been 10 or 12 years old at the time but he recognized that hollow look in his father’s eyes. It was a gaze of emptiness, of hopelessness. It was the same face the professor saw reflected back to him now and then when he managed to drag himself to the bathroom mirror to perform his weekly shave (a single blade razor, yet another military habit).
But his father was different. Determination or resignation, he couldn’t quite remember what it was that passed over his father’s face that night, but before it was over he was his same old self, telling bed time stories to the professor, doing all the voices like he used to do, as if nothing had changed. As if he would not have to return to his family empty handed.
The professor let out a sigh and returned to massaging his knees. It was not as though he was lonely here. In fact, he prized his solitude. After all, that was the reason he had erected the walls and gate around his estate in the first place. Ostensibly to keep Ricky from running away, though he knew he never would, but really to keep human contact out–the neighbors, the passersby, the tourists.
Tourists. They were a sign of how things had changed here, for the worse. They all came to India to gawk at its starving children, to ride an elephant, to gain enlightenment, and god knows what else. They came with their flashing cameras and plastic water bottles. Cameras to take pictures of the mountains and trees. Pictures that would be shut up into boxes in the attic, forgotten within a month. Bottles to be tossed carelessly down the hillside, to stay for a generation: a final farewell kick to the jaw, flaunting the fact that they came from somewhere else where they could drink the water from the tap, that they were only passing through.
They came on roads that paved over old walking trail that the professor grew up on, riding in cars that shot sooty black smoke into his pristine mountain air. Most of all, they were loud and obnoxious. They oohed and ahhed, shouted and yelled at the monkeys, the mountains.
There was a time when the professor could go out all day with his Wordsworth or his Keats, reading aloud, undisturbed. The last time he tried that he was ambushed by a family from Delhi on a picnic who broke into laughter just as he was reaching the climax of Grecian Urn. Truth, beauty, beauty truth dissolved into a chorus of cackling. The professor remembered scuttling away, red-faced, lost for words embarrassed to be caught out in his private pleasure.
So he had done the only sensible thing; he walled himself in. The wall around Wolfsburn estate was sizeable, a testament to the professor’s determined isolationism. In truth, it was hardly necessary. No one passed by Wolfsburn, so far off the main trails, except for Nirmala, but it gave the professor his peace of mind.
Nirmala. Where the hell was she? It was well past 9:00, she should have been here hours ago. The professor listened, craned his neck to look out the window but saw nothing but trees, heard nothing but the light patter of rain upon the leaves.
Hours passed. Nirmala probably wouldn’t show. Tomorrow he would be subjected to all sorts of excuses: a family illness, a sudden wedding, something. You could never trust these Nepalis, too unpredictable, fickle.
The storm picked up outside. Maybe she really wouldn’t ever come. He would be stuck here forever, slowly wasting away while his medicine his key to escape sat only a few rooms away. At least he would finally be put out of his misery.
Thunder clattered somewhere in the distance. Lightning briefly lit up his room: the bedside table, the arm chair. In the flash he saw his face reflected in the mirror hanging on the door. He was surprised by the gaunt features, the round bald head and busy eyebrows that appeared and disappeared before him.
To hell with it. He could do it by himself. He sat upright, braced himself against the bedposts and swung his legs out of bed and onto the floor. Easy. He could probably fire Nirmala and with the money saved get another dog, a companion for Ricky.
He reached for his cane resting against the wall, felt the knobs of its wooden handle cool against his palm and gripped down hard. One. Two. Three–he was up! Standing, alone, supported only by his cane.
Then thunderclaps, agony, a shooting pain like knives running up and down his legs, pulsating at his knees. He cried out, “Aiiee!” and staggered forward toward the door. Tears welled in his eyes as he forced his way through the door frame. A huge inhale with each step, a strangled cry and exhale with each footfall.
His teeth bared, biting down hard, he throttled his cane, knuckles turning white. He could not stop now, almost to the front door, almost to the kitchen.
And then his knees buckled, the floor went out from under him and he tipped forward, arms splayed out, cane flying through the air, clattering to the ground at the same time his face connected hard with the stone floor. Blood.
He felt his eyes roll up into his head, saw the room go dark, stay dark. His cheek lay flat against the floor, his eyes swum in their sockets, trying to focus.
A knock on the door cut through the haze. Now she decides to show up!? If he ever got up off the floor he was going to strangle Nirmala with his bare hands. Before he could launch into a tirade against his maid a voice rang out, a distinctively un-Nirmalaeque voice, calling out, “Helloooo? Anybody Home?”