The rains resumed their fury as soon as the Pillais left. They were the last to leave the apartment complex. Their son had sent an Innova. She watched from her balcony on the 24th floor as the van slowly made its way onto the flooded main road. The profusion of plants around her were rotting and had to be removed, but the gardener wouldn’t be coming, and the watchman had disappeared the day the rains started. She was alone, not that it felt any different. Out of the hundred apartments rising twenty-eight floors above the suburbs, ten had people permanently living in them. The rest were “investments.” Mr. Pillai had laughed when she told him the reason she had chosen this building. With so many houses around, she would not be left rotting if she were to die alone in her rooms. After all, the window of her bedroom faced another one, just a few feet away. After she moved in, she came to know that the house belonging to that window was empty, as were the two entire floors opposite her on that block. It was a shock at first but now she had come to enjoy the solitude. The building stayed pristine, the marble entryway gleamed and the protective plastic film on the elevator doors were still in place, five years on.
The TV was working. She watched the news channels with the sound muted. Water above bridges, above boundary walls, above old and bent TV antennas. They had gone shopping a couple of days ago. When the water was lightly lapping the sides of the roads. Mr. Pillai kept saying all this preparation was unnecessary, but the ladies were having fun. Four trolleys were filled with frozen, dried, pickled, canned and tetra-packed food. Once they reached home, the driver had carried the bags to her flat and placed them on her dining table, covering the two-seater entirely. It had depressed her. She had broken her own rule and opened the quarter bottle of brandy at four instead of six, when the crows noisily circled their homes. She had also called her bootlegger to order enough for a fortnight.
The Pillais had begged her to come with them. She promised to call if she needed help. The rains had gone on long enough, they would stop. The building had a back up generator that could last seven days. She had ten bottles of brandy.
The Innova disappeared round the bend; she lifted her eyes to see water everywhere. Grey with green blotches where the trees were taller than the incessant rising of the black and brown water. The rest of the city blurred beyond it, buildings through a screen of rain. She walked to the cupboard and brought out a bottle. There was no one left to judge.
The TV kept flashing the same photos. There was some writing moving at the bottom. She took out her glasses to read. It took a moment for the words to come together. Fathers looking for daughters, volunteers looking for donations, groups looking for volunteers, wives looking for husbands, friends looking for friends. She glanced down at her phone. Full battery and full signal.
On TV, a white man was floating on a rubber tire. He is going to get a skin infection, she decided. One that will look worse on his pink, blotchy, white skin than on brown skin. Like the violent red rash that the white son stealer had caught, the one time she had come to visit.
“I believe in forgiveness.”
Her parting words on the first and last time they met. The ease with which she had said it festered for years after the visit.
There was a time when she could abort any words that she didn’t want to hear with a look. When girls trembled before her, fearing their socks had slipped to less than regulation height, for if they had, she would mark the exact height on their calves with her special cello-taped, flexible, young bamboo cane to make sure they never forgot. She taught poems with rhyming raps on the knuckles, and excuses were heard through the pinch of lobster-red earlobes and then there was the “special.” That soft flesh right below the armpit, on the inside of the arm, which got extra attention from her particularly manicured talons.
“Do you want some ‘special’ attention girlie?”
The question was enough most of the time. Many of the girls she taught had gone on to big things. Some of them even thanked her for it. Unlike her son.
She had no idea what to do with him from the beginning. A strange creature that reminded her of the short, uncomfortable time she had spent with his father. She brought him up on a foggy memory of advice from a colleague
“Boys grow up by themselves, unlike girls. Just give them something to eat and leave them alone.”
He had grown up fine, even gone abroad for studies, helped by one of her students. And he had stayed there. He was not particularly missed. She cooked one measure of rice for her meals instead of two and nothing else changed. Until he had married and brought her home. A wife who probed and prodded. The worst kind. Who asked questions. About the father, about the son, about the girls, about that one complaint from that spoilt student that had ended her career. Everything she had ignored, forgotten, buried. Drowned, she thought as the TV went blank.
Her phone rang. It was the Pillais. She assured them that she was fine. It was pure luck finding neighbours like them at this stage of her life. Good, decent people. They knew how to bring up children. The son consulted his father on everything. The son, his wife and the newborn child had moved out only a few months ago. The baby was colicky and Mr. Pillai loved his sleep. Mrs. Pillai had set up the entire house for them, even chosen the curtains. The girl was lucky. The son could have bought a house in the same apartment complex, but for some reason, he insisted on moving to the other end of the city. Mrs. Pillai had said that it was closer to his workplace on one of their frequent shopping trips. They had walked into a menswear shop to buy a belt for her son.
“He cannot even look at a leather belt. He wears a fabric one, even with his formals.”
She had enquired if he was a vegan. A word she had learnt from her own son’s wife.
“No, Mr. Pillai used to use his belts on him. It made him what he is today, but it gave him an aversion to leather belts.”
She had stared at Mrs Pillai. But a strange shameful, excitement had gripped her insides. The image and the sound of a leather belt hitting human flesh flashed through her mind. Dried, polished, dead skin hitting a live, young one. She didn’t want to think about it, but it forced itself into her thoughts. When the rains had started, it brought with it new images and new sounds.
Dreams, or were they nightmares?
Of soft flesh between her fingers, of wooden rulers hitting growing bones, of leather belts with metal buckles that brought out lines of blood.
The brandy didn’t help. Did she enjoy punishing those girls? The thought came unprovoked. She drowned it immediately. No she was helping them. Her son’s face appeared in a blur but his wife’s was as sharp as her questions. She had to search for his photos in the sticky albums that lined one side of her bookshelf, his shadowy face scattered here and there among the class photos and the school excursion photos. She tried to memorize his face, but once she closed her eyes, all she could feel was his soft flesh in her hands, and all she could recall were his wrinkled knuckles. It was funny how she could remember those old man knuckles but not his face.
The images crowded and churned inside her head. She should have gone with the Pillais. The empty building seemed to be mocking her, growing in size around her. Why did it take so long to reach the kitchen from her bedroom? There was an old laptop on the study table next to her bed. Mrs. Pillai, who used every skill she could learn to keep tabs on her own son and daughter-in-law, had taught her all about Facebook and Google. So, she logged in and saw the entire screen filled with rain, rain, rain. The walls around her were projecting the images from her head. The brandy bottle was half empty. She took another gulp. There had to be someone left in these hundred houses. She walked out her door, to the other apartments, ringing bells, calling out. The silence seemed to be mocking her. Even the sound of the rain refused to reach into these corridors. She ran back into her house. The laptop was open. There were people posting about dry houses. She frantically typed in her address, begging people to come.
The brandy seemed to be doing its work. The images had disappeared, even the one where she was using the hot dosa ladle on those wrinkled knuckles and the sizzle filled her eardrums. People would come. She would fill her house and the hallways. There was plenty of water and food. She went into the kitchen and arranged the huge quantity of food into batches. Then went into the rooms and brought out the bedsheets and blankets. She cleaned the house. The rain was a soothing murmur in the background as she scrubbed the tiles in her bathroom. They would remark on how clean and dry her house was. They would appreciate her. They would love her.
It was turning even darker. Not the steady darkness thrown by the overcast sky of the past few days but the deep darkness of the night. She stood on the balcony waiting for the strangers who would become her own. The rain fell steadily and the road to the building remained empty. She went back online. The internet connection had disappeared. Why wasn’t anyone responding? Her address was out there floating on the web, wasn’t it? Did she post it wrong? The brandy bottle was empty. She opened another one and stood staring off the balcony. Another image came unbidden. Pushing her son into a corner of another balcony in another town, threatening to throw him over the railing. She gulped down some more of the brandy, doing away with the meddlesome glass, straight from the bottle. Then stopped herself. She had to be graceful in front of the guests. Carefully hiding away the empty bottles among the plants, she poured the rest of the brandy into a large, blue coloured mug. Now no one would know she was drinking.
Nobody was coming.
The lights in her apartment went out. The generator that was supposed to run for seven days had conked out in three. A surge of anger coursed through her. Those idiots had cheated her, like everyone else in her life. The anger brought on new images and sounds. She gulped some more brandy but her gut couldn’t take it and it came out in a spewing torrent. She sat down in the filth. Her body refusing to get up. Breath coming in deep, painful gasps. Tears were burning down her cheeks. The darkness was complete. She managed to haul herself up and lean into the night. The rain fell on her head and coursed down her face. She had only four actual friends on Facebook. The rest were just pages she liked, groups she had joined. Only friends could see her post. Two were the Pillais, who wouldn’t be checking their Facebook walls anytime soon because they had gone to stay with the subjects of their snooping. The third one was an old colleague who had died last month. The last on her list was her daughter-in-law, who had posted a photo with a newborn baby in her arms a week ago. Her son had not informed her about the new arrival. The image of that half-hidden face came to her mind. Swaddled in white and blue, one closed eye and a cheek presented to the world, but not to her. She imagined grabbing it from that woman and flinging it away. But this time, her whole body revolted at the image. She flung herself instead, into the welcoming darkness and the cool rain.
Amritha Dinesh lives in Chennai and loves writing across genres. Her stories have appeared in Kitaab Anthology of Best Asian Speculative Fiction, Juggernaut.in and Out of Print magazine, among others. She is the recipient of the 2019 Toto Sangam Residency Fellowship.