She walked past them sitting on the stairs and could feel their eyes follow her all the way up. They had all been acting funny since she moved into the apartment yesterday. They would whisper and speak in very low tones all the while eyeing her with a mixed emotion. Whether it was pity or awe or just a weird look she could not fathom but it surely sent shivers down her spine. Even the children steered cleared when she walked past.
Not that she cared. Getting a place in the city was a humongous task in itself and being a single woman she had found it both draining and disgusting (the way people would give her ‘the look’).
It was only by chance that she had found the posting on one of the lesser known sites. The posting itself was a few months old and she was surprised the apartment was still available. One-bedroom hall kitchen was just perfect for her, she had no family and practically no friends (apart from Nisha) she did not see herself entertaining a whole bunch of people.
The owner lived abroad and she had found the keys he had left hidden inside the frame hanging outside the apartment. She completed the formalities online and transferred the money to the account number he had specified.
She got the apartment cleaned and moved in before the owner could change his mind.
It was raining when she got out of the auto rickshaw and she was glad all the prying and snooping neighbours were at least indoors.
She had received a request from the owner, he was visiting the country and wanted to come over to see the home. It was his home so she could not put off seeing him.
She had tried to leave early from work but could not wriggle out of the last-minute meeting.
As she climbed up she wondered how long would he stay. She hurriedly hid the laundry strewn all over the place and tried to make it a bit presentable.
The bell rang and she looked once in the mirror before hurrying to open the door.
He looked younger than in the profile picture on the website.
Smiling he held out a bouquet of flowers for her, she was instantly charmed and wanted to kick herself for not picking up any snacks on the way.
She invited him inside and he flopped on the sofa.
She put the flowers in a vase by the window and sat down opposite him
“I like what you have done with the apartment,” he said. She blushed at the compliment. “Thank you, it was pre furnished and all I could do was to maintain all the lovely stuff you have here”.
“Yes Mona and me personally choose everything, it was going to be our home after we got married,” there was a faraway look in his eyes and he paused as if reminiscing of a happier time. She looked at him and the soft glow from the lamp made him look pensive and endearing at the same time.
She was uneasy being able to peep in his personal life in the very first meeting. She offered to make tea to lighten up the mood and to divert the conversation to more mundane topics.
But she was curious about ‘Mona’ and her landlord, was he married to Mona, what kind of person she was, and other thoughts kept buzzing in her head as she made tea.
They spoke about general things and soon before she realized it was dinner time. He would now take her leave politely she thought.
They spoke for some more time and she started to feel hungry. She pointedly looked at the clock.
He took the hint and got up. “Oh I must be infringing on your time; sorry I did not realize it was late. Actually I was to meet a friend for dinner but he can’t make it. I would be eating alone do you want to join me?” he asked.
She was about to refuse when she remembered she did not have much to do herself and her dinner would be Maggi (like most nights).
“The neighbourhood has changed a lot I may have difficulty looking for a decent restaurant. There used to be a good Lebanese joint just around the corner till it burnt down a year ago. Me and Mona were regulars there” he said
She looked out of the window and it was pouring heavily, to go hunting for a restaurant in weather like that would be crazy.
“We can order something at home maybe,” she suggested after all she did have a drawer full of take away menus.
They settled for some parathas and she placed the order. They talked as she set out the plates etc.
When the food came he insisted on paying for it. They talked more during dinner, nothing very personal but they still found a lot of things in common.
He was sharp and funny and she had not had good company for a really long time. She lapped up all the attention he was giving her and though somewhere her brain kept screaming her some strange warning about asking him to leave she let him go on.
“It’s very late I am sorry to have stayed this long,” he said suddenly looking at the clock.
She wanted him to stay, it showed on her face too. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand and in and instant they were embracing. Things progressed quickly from there on and there was no stopping them.
She woke up smiling languidly the traces of last night’s romance evident in the rumpled sheets. He was not around and she was a bit disappointed.
Then she looked at her bedside table and found the note tucked under her alarm clock.
“I am sorry to leave like that, you looked like an angel and I did not have the heart to wake you up”
She held the note to her lips and as if to capture his scent she nuzzled the pillow he had laid on.
Then she remembered it was still middle of the week and she hurriedly got about getting ready to leave for work.
Those stares again, the old man from the apartment across was coming back from his walk, he gave her ‘the weird look’ as she locked the door behind her but this time she did not bother. She even managed to smile at him which perplexed him even more.
She had just reached the stairs when she heard the old man call out “Mona?”
She stopped, turned half expecting Mona to be standing somewhere in the hallway. Had Mona found out about her and her landlord and what had transpired between them? Was she here to check on him?
She had really never gotten around to asking what happened between him and Mona. What if they still had something? What if he was married? She wanted to kick herself for not even bothering about asking him last night. She had just succumbed to his charming ways and little lost boy looks.
But when she turned she saw no one else except for the old man in the hallway. He was looking at her, “Mona” he repeated and she realized he was addressing her.
“Sheena”, she offered her hand which he did not even acknowledge. He was still gaping at her. She shook her head and continued down the stairs.
“Nisha, I am in love”, she was confiding to the only closest friend she had. “I will tell you the details later, I have to rush for another meeting but meet me in the evening at our regular coffee place and I will fill you in on the details”.
“Slow down, and tell me right from the beginning”, Nisha prompted. Sheena was so excited she hardly could contain herself. “Ok, so it all began when he dropped by………………………………………………”
After she had told Nisha all that she could possibly share without infringing on their private night she sat back and gleamed.
“But have you asked him about how he feels? got any details on him, checked if he is engaged, married has a girlfriend already?” Nisha asked.
“I think he is in love with me as much as I am with him” Sheena replied. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind.
“I will ask him when I meet him tomorrow evening, then he is flying out and will return soon, he promised” she replied and thereafter entered a state of dreamy anticipation.
Nisha saw the faraway look in her eyes and tugged at her. “Ok, let’s go, I guess it’s up to me to check on him then, you seem to be totally hypnotized and are in no state to think logically”
“Do you really have to go?” She asked him, her heart-strings tugging at the tear dams which threatened to overflow through her eyes. “Yes” he replied. He looked at her and turned his face.
She hugged him from behind and felt as if someone was taking her soul out of her body. It was but a couple of days that they had spent together but it felt like eternity. She was breaking at the thought of him leaving but she hoped he would return. After all he felt the same way she did, didn’t he?
His flight was very late at night so going to the airport was not an option. He had told her not to come down to see him off as it would be difficult for him to leave, so she said goodbye at the apartment door.
Sobbing she fell asleep. The message she received on her phone went unnoticed……………
The buzz was in her head, it was continuous and it kept getting louder. Her head was splitting in two and she could not fathom why the buzzing did not stop. Then still groggy from uneasy slumber she realized her door bell was ringing. It was 6.30 am what an ungodly hour on a Sunday for someone to wake her up.
She stumbled out of her bed and open the door.
Nisha stood there, from the looks of her it was evident she had not slept all night too. She was frantic and started looking for something as soon as Sheena let her in.
“Where is he? Did he leave anything? Did you see him leave last night?” Nisha bombarded her with questions which refused to penetrate through her haziness.
“What? Who? What are you talking about?” Sheena asked sitting down on the sofa.
“Sheena, I have to tell you this, please brace yourself” Nisha announced ominously.
Sheena could not for the life of her understand why Nisha was hugging her so tight and murmuring “Oh God you are alright; thank God you are alright.”
“I was not sure if he was right for you, you are so naïve and it was up to me to check out if he really was the man he said to be, so I was checking his background from the net. “
Then she put out some computer printouts in front of her. They were news reports with pictures of a burning restaurant. Suddenly one picture jumped at her. It was him and her. The new report read.
“This couple known to frequent the Lebanese Restaurant were among the unfortunate 20 customers who could not escape the restaurant in time. Engaged to be married Manish and Mona were celebrating their last few days of bachelorhood with some friends when the fire broke out. None of them survived. Mona was declared dead on arrival with 90 degree burns, Manish was in coma for a week but never regained consciousness”
The message on her phone said, “I had to just see if you were alright, I will always love you. Manish”.