She used to whistle. Wear skirts that showed off her legs. Smudge her mouth with lipstick the colour of flamingo plumes. Skip-hop into the train, at 8:15 am sharp, every day. Sit, knees crossed, the small of her back hugging the seat. Or she’d stand. A limb held loosely beneath arched hips. Her arm like Eve’s, reaching for the bar overhead.
Now there are ladders in her stockings. Her nails are like the stub-ends of leaves chewed up by caterpillars. She reads her emails again and again. Scanning the words afloat in the cold light of her computer screen.
She lumbers up and down the supermarket aisles. Her eyes darting. She picks up a bottle of Teppanyaki, pickled gherkins, or Tabasco, and puts them back again. She rummages in the home improvement section. Examines an item before dropping it and moving to the next. A bewildered bird that has suddenly found itself jammed between the flowerpots and a curious terrier.
She’s been like this for weeks now. The days have fallen in line one behind the other. An orderly row of patients at the doctor’s chamber. Then it strikes.
Suddenly. A bolt from the blue. Oh! It is that blue! Today. She steps into it like it is a sly puddle in her path. A soft cool splash, a tingle on her ankle’s skin. Everything comes to a grinding halt, squashing up one behind the other. Bumpity-bumpity-bump. At the bus stop of all places! Right ahead. That familiar patch of blue, like a slice of summer sky. Oh God!
She blinks. Smoothens her hair. The patch expands, becomes a blue-checked shirt with a crop of black hair curling around the collar. Her blood pumps wildly. Is this why she is standing here, at the end of the queue waiting for a bus? She’s closer to the newspaper kiosk too. More than all the other people waiting around her. This is destiny. Fate. It must be. It has to be! How can it not?
She puts out her hand. Her touch is so light that it’s almost not there. A tiny smile of delight lights up her face. The man turns around startled. The moment breaks like raw egg, spilling out her dismay right there on the pavement, as she stares straight into strange eyes and the world begins to change again.
“I’m sorry! Oh, I’m so sorry. I thought you were him,” she blurts, backing away, her shame congealing like yolk on hot asphalt.
The man grins. Irritation, embarrassment, and even amusement flit through his eyes, all in a matter of seconds. “Eh? Oh, that’s alright.” And then there’s this hint of something else. “Pleasure’s mine,” he says, flicking off a stray strand of hair from his face, his eyes turning back to the paper.
An audible smirk punctures the air. Another woman would have fled, but not her. Not today. Something small and delicate tinkles to the ground. Shatters into a million translucent shards. Something more solid and hard takes its place within her. She taps him on the shoulder with firm fingers. The man has to turn around again.
“No,” she says, looking him in the eye, unblinking. “A nice young man like you…What the fuck would you do with someone like me?” A hiss of steam escapes through her teeth.
The man steps back. Face flushed like a burst tomato. His eyes dart towards the faces at the bus stop, blinking under the spotlight of shocked silence. Another woman hidden from view laughs, as if this is her personal triumph. But the moment is already slinking away, deserting her. With a sudden puppet-jerk of a movement, she leaves. Her hands, like a pair of fatally shot wild birds, fall to her sides. The awkward man, the woman, the titters and snickers, the ghost of an applause; these are mere contrails left behind.
Shoulders shaking, just that tiniest bit, she rushes on. She hurries. Her feet kick the street, scuffing her shoes. Her cheeks and ears feel hot and cold. She goes. She goes. And, before she knows it, she is home. She turns the key, and tumbles in. Flops down on the couch, gulping in the familiar, that wholesome home air.
Day retreats, soaking up light like a thirsty sponge. But night doesn’t step in. Not just yet. There is a soft gloom. Stillness lurks. She takes in the quiet around her, breathing in, breathing out. More evenly, more slowly, bit by bit. This is the hush before the whoosh. And, when the next instant arrives, it comes in a rush, a swift zigzag. She exhales, letting it all escape with the softest of sounds. The action makes her feel lighter, lets something cool and soothing flow deep into her, fluffing up her nerves, tendons and muscles, washing away the emptiness from her eyes. The moment is liquid with realisation. She is here. She is home, ready for tomorrow.
She goes into her kitchen for a drink of water but finds herself looking at the cans and jars, the post-it notes on her fridge door, instead. Tumbler in hand, she saunters from room to room. Water moistens her throat, cools her within. Her eyes note the paler patches on the walls where the sun always falls brighter. The frayed fringes of her drapes. The dust-sheathed books on the shelf. A bird’s nest she’d picked up during a walk. And her bed. Rumpled, unmade, pillows like angry lovers.
She looks all around her. The lightness within her makes her want to stretch and stretch until she can caress a star in the new sky. She lies down instead, feeling the curve of the mattress beneath her shoulders, her hips, her thighs. She scrunches the sheets with her toes. Slowly she surrenders, sinks into nourishing sleep. The other pillow is kicked away to the far side of her bed. Rejected. Repulsed.
Shikhandin is an Indian writer. Her short story collection Immoderate Men was published by Speaking Tiger. Her illustrated book for children Vibhuti Cat was published by Duckbill Books. Shikhandin’s accolades include, winner 2017 Children First Contest curated by Duckbill in association with Parag an initiative of Tata Trust, winner Brilliant Flash Fiction Contest 2019 (USA), runner up Half and One Short Story Competition (India), Shortlist Erbacce Poetry Prize (UK), first runner up The DNA-OOP Short Story Contest 2016 (India), 2nd Prize India Currents Katha Short Story Contest 2016 (USA), winner Anam Cara Short Fiction Competition 2012 (Ireland), long list Bridport Poetry Prize 2006 (UK), finalist Aesthetica Poetry Contest 2010 (UK), Pushcart nominee by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2011 (Hong Kong). Shikhandin’s work has been published worldwide. Notably in HuffPost India, Scroll.in, Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Eclectica (USA), Per Contra (USA), Markings (Scotland), Himmal Magazine (Kathmandu), Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), The Nth Position (UK), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Stony Thursday (Ireland), The Little Magazine (India), Out of Print (India), Sybil’s Garage (USA), Pushing Out the Boat (Scotland), South: A Journal of Poetry (UK), Off the Coast (USA), Etchings (Australia), Going Down Swinging (Australia), Scoundrel Time (USA).