‘Damn!’, Arun cursed aloud, banging on the printer which was producing irksome creaky noises instead of printing out the bills he needed.
‘Hey easy Arun’, said Shiksa walking towards him from her desk.
‘I need to get these ones printed out today itself and there are tonnes waiting for the coming days’, he said exhausted at his own efforts and squatted on the chair nearby.
‘Hey its all right. You go get these printed from some internet cafe and just call John later. He is still doing these repair stuff right?’.
‘Yeah.. I guess’, he mumbled back, still irritated. ‘I have been trying him all afternoon but his phone is switched off. It’s been some time since we called him last. I don’t know if he has changed his number or what.’
‘Hey’, she said softly, sitting down on the chair opposite to him and moving in closer. She took hold of his hand and started rubbing it with her thumb. ‘Do one thing. Now just go home and have a nap. I’ll make sure the bills are printed today. There’s a cafe near my home. It’s fine. All this business thing is getting to your head. Go have nap’.
She was right. The business pressure was really taking hold of him. It was his own idea to quit his previous job at the editing section of a newspaper and start a web designing company of his own. A month into starting up the company, he began tasting the bitterness of hardships in making a new business successful. Now, after nine months, the company was going on pretty steady but the profit graph showed not that big any progress for some time. He was able to add a few more rooms to his office and hire three more staffs, all fresh college pass outs. So, there were a total of five staffs including Shiksha and Ravi.
Ravi was Arun’s best friend from college and had joined his company as he was dismissed from the IT company he worked previously for playing DOTA using the company’s internet connection during working hours. Just three years in the IT field had made Ravi bespectacled. Arun was glad of his vision in that sense because even after almost seven years of continuously being in front of computer screen, his vision was perfect and crystal clear without having to depend on spectacles unlike a large percentage of his classmates. Shiksha and Arun were college sweethearts. Now their marriage was kind of not that far off thing as discussions were going on among the two families.
It was nearly seven in the evening when Arun woke up from what was supposed to be a nap. He glanced at his watch and jumped up from the bed. He had to go find John at his home as one more day with the I-will-work-when-I-feel-like printer would drive him nuts he knew. But it was late now. He gave one more try to Johns cell phone but met with the same switched off message this time too.
It was dark by the time he reached APJ Nagar. It was where he remembered dropping of John one day some months ago after he had done some repairs on the printer and the telephone at the office. It was the house at the end of the lane, he remembered and accelerated his bike forward. Most of the houses had a single bulb hanging outside and the colony was sure occupied by people who were not that well off.
The house at the end of the lane had no lights on outside. It seemed as though no one was home. He sighed mounting off his bike. That was the last thing he wanted, driving up here at this time and finding no one at home. The street illuminated the house with its yellow light. At a glance, the house seemed like that of a bachelor’s, with a dusty sit-out and an unkempt courtyard. But he knew John was married and had a child or two. He rang the doorbell and waited for some time straining his ears for some movement inside. He heard none. After around a minute of waiting in silence with the only sound being the crickets crying, he was about to turn back to leave when he heard the bolt slide down and the door opened. A beautiful middle aged woman stood there looking inquiringly at him, who most probably would be John’s wife.
‘Hai I’m Arun. Is John home?’, he asked tentatively.
‘He isn’t home yet’, she replied, her voice smooth and melodious. ‘But he’ll be here soon. Did you call him?’
‘Actually, I have been trying his cell phone for some time. It’s switched off it seems’.
‘I remember John mentioning you at times. He used to visit your office for works rights?’
‘Yeah.. we are kind of good friends too’
‘Maybe you can wait inside then. He will be here soon’. She said opening the door wider.
He considered telling her to ask her husband to call him as soon as he got home. But he didn’t want John making any excuses the next day and besides there seemed to be something warm and inviting the way she was holding the door open. He wanted to go inside the house for some reason.
‘Ok then I’ll wait for him if it is all right.’
‘Yes, it’s perfectly alright, come on in’, she said opening the door much wider and walking in. He walked in her wake.
The inside of the house was dingier than it appeared from outside. He wondered if people still used incandescent bulbs for lighting, as the source of lighting in the room was one such bulb which gave an eerie appearance to the whole room. There seemed to be a television playing somewhere inside and the whole house seemed to smell of something that has burned in the stove. A boy of almost eleven years old with big round spectacles sat on a chair next to the sofa where he sat. He was doing some homework it seemed and his expression showed that he was dead serious with his work. He didn’t even lift his head once to look at Arun. A small girl about three years old was running around the house with a plastic ball in her hand, throwing and kicking it. Despite of Arun’s protests, not wanting anything to drink, John’s wife went in the kitchen to make him coffee.
‘Hey, what’s your name?’, he asked the boy, who was still scribbling on meticulously.
He stopped his writing and turned his head slowly towards Arun and stared at him blankly without any change in his moody expression.
‘Your name kid. What’s your name?’, he asked again smiling uneasily.
‘Alan’, he replied and turned back his attention immediately to his book.
The little girl had now stopped her running and was watching them. Arun waved at her. She smiled innocently and came running at him immediately when he beckoned her.
‘Hello cutie, what’s your name?’, he asked softly, lifting her and making her sit on his lap.
‘Ma..aa.riiiiiiiia’, she mumbled unable to pronounce correctly. She looked at Arun as though she was expecting something. There was something extremely cute about her. The boy glared at her for some time and returned to his book. He didn’t like the boy.
‘Which class are you studying in?’, he asked the boy, trying to make conversation.
‘Seventh’, he replied without turning from his book. Arun noticed him adjusting his spectacles frequently.
‘He doesn’t like the glasses’, John’s wife came back, smiling, from the kitchen and handed Arun the cup she was carrying.
‘Why?’, he asked taking a sip.
‘He was having trouble seeing letters written on board for some time, but he told no one as he doesn’t like to wear glasses’, she said poking the child mockingly on his cheeks. ‘It was his teacher who told me that he needed to consult an eye specialist. Today I bought these glasses for him and he doesn’t want to wear them.’
‘But he seems pretty interested in what he is doing’.
‘Ha! you would think so. He was playing with the cooking stove along with his sister when I came home. Gave some scolding. That’s why all the moody face.’
Arun smiled. He missed these kind of things, his childhood.
It took him almost thirty minutes to finish his coffee listening to her talking about her children. She told him that she was planning to send the younger one next year to Kendriya Vidyalaya where her son was studying now. Arun found it amusing that she had even way far future planned for her children. She wanted the younger one to be a teacher and he laughed when she told him that her child would be teaching fifth standard.
‘Why fifth standard specifically?’, he asked, laughing.
‘I don’t know’, she replied smiling. ‘I feel like it’.
She wanted the boy to become an IPS officer. He had the calibre she said. But Arun seriously doubted if seventh grade was all it needed to assess the calibre to become an IPS officer. But he couldn’t blame the mother for whatever he saw in her child. He just smiled.
Immersed in her talk, Arun did not keep track of time. It was almost one hour since he had come and John was not there yet.
‘Maybe I’ll try his cell phone once again’, he said and dialled, still switched off.
‘I think I’ll better leave then’, he said standing up. ‘John might be late, besides mom had asked me to be home before eight. She needs to visit the supermarket or something. Just tell him that I had come, waited for him and ask him to call me right off. The works important you know.’
‘Okay I will tell him then. Sad that you have to leave now’, she said walking him to the door. The two kids followed.
‘Good night then’, he said waving his hand before speeding his bike forward. The boy was still gloomy and waved at him with some reluctance. The girl and the mother waved happily at him bidding him farewell.
Arun woke up the next day to the sound of his mobile phone ringing. He picked it up sleepily, it was John.
‘Hello Arun, good morning it’s me John. I just saw your calls. Is it your printer again?’
‘Good morning John.. ‘, he said sleep headed. ‘Yes, it’s the printer. Would you drop by the office today? Work would be a mess without the damn thing working. I had been trying your cell all afternoon last day’
‘Sure man. I’ll come by in the morning. Yesterday my phone’s battery had run down and I was out of town on a family trip. It was just today morning that we reached town.’
‘Wait! what?’, he jumped up, sitting on his bed now. ‘You were out of town with family?’
‘Yeah’, he replied. “Why?’.
‘Don’t talk rubbish John. I was at your house yesterday night and met your wife and children. She was the one who asked you to call me right?’
‘Arun, are you high or something this early?’, he asked flabbergasted. ‘As I said I was returning from a family trip with my wife and daughter yesterday night and it was today when I finally got my phone charged and switched it on that I saw your missed calls.’
Arun didn’t say anything. He was unable to process things. How can it be possible? He had been there right? Or… was it a dream or something? Things like these had happened to him. Dreaming and waking up thinking everything was true what that happened in the dream. But that feel lasted for only seconds before he came to his senses. This was definitely not a dream. Or was it? He was confused.
‘John. What’s your house address.’
‘House no fourteen, AVJ Nagar. Why Arun?’, his voice gave away his utter bewilderment.
‘It’s nothing. Call me before you visit the office. Bye’. He cut the line.
Now he knew. House number fourteen of APJ Nagar, not AVJ Nagar, it was where he went the last night.
He quickly opened his phone browser and typed in the address.
A number of newspaper articles and related links showed up. All were dated a year back. He clicked on the one at the top:
FAMILY KILLED IN GAS EXPLOSION
Delhi: A family consisting of a mother and her two children were burned to death following an explosion which is primarily suspected is due to the leakage of cooking gas. Neena (34), her children Alan (12) and Maria(4) are the victims…………..
He averted his widened pupils away from the phone. What the….. Only certain sentences registered in his mind.
The explosion took place at about six in the evening……… The rear portion of the house was completely burned down and ruined……… Their bodies were found burned beyond immediate identification……..
And there were pictures of the victims. The mother, the son and the daughter. Three of them were smiling. The same three faces he had seen yesterday. But the only difference was that the boy was smiling too and he had no spectacles on.
He couldn’t take any more. He abruptly got up from his bed and went to the wash basin splashing water on his face. He dried his face and took out his phone to look once again the article. The letters seemed hard for him to read now. He grabbed the magazine lying on his bed and opened it in hurry. He found it hard to make out the letters clearly. The letters were kind of blurred. He needed spectacles. Oh! how much he hated wearing one.