Cactus Flower7 mins 22.1K 7 mins 22.1K
The solitude was boring and to overcome the boredom, I walked out and stood on a footpath of a crossing just outside my hotel. On the left there was an entrance to the underground railway station and a shopping arcade. It was getting dark but one could still see a faint orange glimmer in west skyline. It must have rained earlier as streets were wet and air was sodden with moisture and chill. The cars stopped momentarily at the crossing and moved away with the flicker of red, orange and green colors of traffic signal lights leaving behind trails of fine spray and whiffs of chilly breeze. The neon signs of shops and restaurants blinked continuously with purely mechanical rhythms and flashed vibrant messages. I watched in amazement interplay of colors and reflections of tail lights, signal and street lights on the wet streets. The monotony was broken by occa0sional passersby and my thoughts followed them until they disappeared into the void. The world around me seemed to be happy and zestful but oblivious to the presence of a stranger standing on the footpath and longing for some charity of warmth. It was an evening of late October in London.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and the atmosphere around me was filled with a faint but exotic fragrance. I turned around and found a young lady perhaps in her twenties staring at me and beaming with a smile as if she had known me for ages. She was tall and slander with flawless English complexion. Her large violet eyes were bright and hypnotic. Her shoulder length silky brown hairs curled at edges were flying carelessly around her face with the breeze. Her looks radiated an aura of self-confidence.
“Hello,” she said, looking at me with a smile.
“Hello.” I responded spontaneously.
“It is chilly, isn’t it?" She asked me gently.
“Yes it must have rained earlier I suppose.” I replied coyly.
“Will you care for a cup of coffee with me?" She asked me with modulation in her voice very enchanting.
“Certainly yes." I consented irresistibly.
With a grin she held my palm in her hand, locking her fingers around mine and dashed across the street through the gap between waiting cars. I did not resist but followed her into a small restaurant. The place was dark but quite and cozy. We sat opposite each other around a small neatly covered round table at the corner of the hall. She asked the waiter for two cups of coffee.
I introduced myself and spelled out my name.
"Are you an Indian?” She asked me. “I have never been to India but have read a lot about it.” She added “In fact I have never been out of my country. I was born and brought up in London. I like Indians.” She continued, “They have dark eyes and black hair. You too have black hair. You have beautiful eyes.” She complimented. There was sincere admiration in her expressions. It was amazing to hear her talk about India, her culture and people. She seemed to know more about India than me as an Indian. Her expressions were mature and her compliments delightful. She was a woman of conviction. She asked me about purpose of my visit and whether it was my first visit to London. She talked about some tourist places in and around the City and suggested me to visit them and some dos and some don’ts of the city. She presented to me a rail guide. She advised me to buy an overcoat for approaching cold weather and promised to take me to shopping during following week.
I considered myself to be a good conversationalist; instead, I found myself an intent listener.
“My name is Betty.” She introduced herself, “Betty Greate.” She repeated with clear hyphenated accent. “I am a nurse.” She added, “I was dismissed during the strike last month.” She continued, "I am jobless now and trying to find a new way of life. It's not easy to get a job these days. One out of every nine persons is jobless in our country. Things are getting difficult here and life is impossible. I live close to this place and all by myself since I do not belong to anybody and nobody belongs to me.” Those words spoken in her childlike innocence were numb with bitterness and despair. She was quiet for a moment. I found her struggling for words. She looked at my cup of coffee trying to avoid my stare, but in the glow of candle, I saw the sparkle of her eyes disappeared and the expressions of face hardened. The surging turmoil of suffering within her lonesome soul had broken the dam of restrain releasing tears. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes, but her pride would not let them out and concealed them within her eyelids. She did not weep but the candle in front of her could not contain and let out uninterrupted flow of warm droplets unabashedly. Perhaps she had found a person to whom she could confide her innermost thoughts and feelings without fear of ridicule and rejection. I was struck and watched her spellbound. She was proud, domineering and a living portrait of beauty and grace. She composed herself and continued but changed the conversation. The twilight had faded into darkness. We had spent entire evening over coffee.
She said it was time for her to go and insisted on paying for the coffee. I let her pay. Suddenly she got up like a frightened bird about to take an instant flight with the apprehension of an impending danger and dashed towards exit door. I followed her up to the footpath. Hurriedly she bid me goodbye with a promise to see me again and started moving away. I stood there for long after she had disappeared in to the darkness.
I had never been so happy and proud in all my life. Her simple act of companionship and her instant charm had lifted and refreshed my spirit. It seemed I was soaring high in the sky away from egocentric world.
Her words still ringing in my ears and the fragrance lingering around me, I return to my hotel. While retiring for the day I reached for my wallet in the pocket of my trousers, instead I found a small note. It read.
If you care for me then please do not report this incident to the Police and forgive me.
I was no longer soaring high but earthbound. I had lost fifty sterling pounds and a small change besides my new leather wallet and a few papers. Normally feeling of being cheated nurtures hatred for the cheat but my heart was filled with pity and reached out to her in her moments of distress. The loss seemed to me too trifle to the loss I feared would follow.
Thereafter every evening for rest of my stay in London, I haunted the streets, the shops and the restaurants around that crossing though I knew not the reason. Late in the evening on the day of my departure while standing with my baggage at the ticket window of the railway station I was struck by a bold notice on the wall. It read “Beware of pick pockets”. I stood before it for a while and read it many times over. It was warning for others but to me it was a message saying:
“Go back my love and goodbye to you. Goodbye forever since you shall never see me again”.
I turned around and looked at the crossing. There was veil of haze in the atmosphere through which I could see golden halos of street lights gradually fading away into the edge of nowhere. The streets were deserted except an urchin at far end of one of the streets was playing a number on his guitar. The signals and neon signs were still blinking as if having a dig at me. I laughed at myself and thought what a fool I was. I then heard a sharp voice from behind the ticket window asking for my destination. I said, “Heathrow Airport please.”
There has been a long passage of time since then but sometimes when my thoughts go down the memory lane during my very personal moments, I find myself standing on a footpath waiting for someone, since there has been no impact as deep and valuable to me as the fleeting fragments of the memories of that evening.