It was still vivid in her memory, when she walked into the hospital that day, to be precise 42 days ago on a rainy September weekend. As she shook off the water from her windcheater a voice came from behind,
“You are late!”
Hot words were about to escape her mouth when she realized it was not her boss, but a stranger. Controlling her temper, she asked,
“May I know who is asking?”
His surprise must have shown in his expression, she hastened a little, “Do you have an appointment? “
“Well, you were the one who scheduled me at 1015!” His voice betrayed amusement despite being polite.
She cursed herself for forgetting. Having an adolescent son and a misunderstanding-with- a drop of a hat kind of a husband, now she is not helping her career too. Being a psychiatrist is a tough job and that knowledge makes it tougher, she mused. In a corporate hospital set up, poor memory shows one in poor light.
“Sorry, please follow me”
Her room was spacious and the couch was in that comfortable corner where there is a play of sufficient light and shadows..to read the eyes and to ignore the moisture if any. The ornamental bunch of tulips placed in the window sill was trying its best to look natural. Her table was just across where preliminary formalities are gotten over with.
She studied her patients. He must be in his early forties. Handsome too, she registered with a start when she realized that she thought of that adjective after many years. Average height she thought while he was sitting and not very fat when he finally sat down.
“Hope you are finished studying me? Really impressive, these methods of psychoanalysis!”
Smiling my professional smile, she asked “So, you know the methods of psychiatrists?
“A little. From what I read”
He was running his fingers along the side of the table as if testing its polish. His fingers were long, with well-shaped nails though there does not seem to be an effort at a pedicure…women know. Her husband would have spent an afternoon to get that look, she thought wryly.
“What else do you know? From your reading”
“Oh, that’s where you come in for? After all, madam, you are paid for it!” this man does not require help was the first impression and he has that amused expression that helps his quick responses appear to be less blunt. While she was jotting down that on the pad before her, he said, “No, I do think I need help!”
She was startled and cautioned herself to be watchful. His eyes were bright and bright eyes have an uncanny ability to be brighter in a bearded face. More salt than pepper, in that beard she thought. She also thought of the necessity to ignore bright eyes and handsome faces.
“Tell me, how may I help you, then?” Steepling the fingers under her chin, she asked.
“ Well, put that way, I mean so professionally, I feel, I don’t require help!”
That familiar response restored her confidence.
“Try me. May be talking about the issue may give you some clarity”
“You are right”. There was a pause of a minute or so when she thought he was lost in some deep thought, “ I have a typical artists’ block.”
Oh, that’s it, she sighed internally. That explains the long fingers, beard and feverish eyes, she told herself. All artists are like this or those with such features become artists, she doubted.
“So you paint or sing or dance? “
“Do you honestly think I can sing or dance?” his voice was again bordering on amusement.
“So, painting. What do you paint?”
“This and that.” He suddenly changed the subject, so sudden that, she thought she misheard him. “You would look beautiful if only you let your hair loose and change your earrings”
She composed herself with an effort. “Thanks for the advice. But let us discuss your artists’ block.”
“No, no. Listen to me. And also wear a little mascara. It enhances the brown of your eyes.”
The late afternoon, post downpour, sun was glancing through the window. She could see his eyes more clearly, nothing impish about them, only a curious inspection, a professional assessing a subject he encountered. It has been some time, any member of the opposite sex complimented her. Her thoughts instinctively went to her husband. Since their marriage almost fifteen years ago, she never saw him noticing her. There was a beautiful oil painting of a woman carrying firewood from the forest in their drawing-room. He always enjoyed having it around; it was expensive and it was appreciated by his colleagues. She always felt a little like that painting. At least he looks at that painting more, she thought.
Dragging her thoughts back on to the sunlit face of the stranger before her, she said, “again thanks for all that. Let us discuss you”
He said nothing for a while. But thankfully, he averted his gaze from her and started looking at those flowers in the window.
“I am not able to paint anymore. Heard writers have such blocks but painters!. I can sit at the easel, hold my palette and spend hours together. But what I paint has no life or at least I think there is no life in it!”
“Have you tried your friends, I mean, your artist friends? Asking them to judge the painting”
“I know, how good or bad I am”
The alarm beeped. Time was up. He got up slowly, he looked sad. “ Ok, doctor. Let me schedule one more appointment with you later”
He went out.
The appointments continued. She learned about his background, his affairs, why he did not marry, his fears but somehow could not pinpoint the reason why he blocked out! But all the appointments had something in common. His compliments or criticisms of her. About her dress, feet, hair. It was pleasing at times but frightening mostly. She told him a couple of times very professionally to avoid such comments. He just looked at her and did not reply at all. But a smile lingered at the corner of his eyes.
All this she shared with her best friend. Best friend of childhood. They go a long way back to the school days. She shared everything with her. Her fears, dreams and such trivia life are generally made of. She dared not to tell this to her husband, she was not even sure he would care. But she did not know how to tell him. Some times she thought she did not want to tell him. This, she did not tell her friend too. But her friend could read between the lines and warned her.
“You are a psychiatrist. Be professional. Not sure, whether what you are doing would be good in the long term”
The warning pleased her. The inkling of the prohibited gave her the thrill. She looked forward to those appointments. Then it happened.
That day started bad. It rained and her car broke down on the way to the clinic. By the time she found a taxi and reached the clinic, she missed her first appointment and the furious patient let her know how disappointed he was.
When she composed herself and dragged through the morning she remembered she left her lunch box in her car itself. Sandwich from the adjacent coffee shop was hardly any substitute. As she was munching the sandwich desolately, she realized that it was his appointment coming up. Though she looked forward to it usually she was in no mood that day.
He walked in and sat down.
“Have you ever asked me what I paint?”
She stared blankly “ No, but how many kinds of painting are there? I am not a painter, you know”
“I paint nudes” He explained though she didn’t ask him to, “ Models do come and I paint. Sometimes it takes a couple of days and sometimes a week.”
This was an unexpected revelation but what came next completely jolted her.
“Would you model for me? I think you would be ideal” it was his matter of fact voice.
It took me a long time to respond. It was shock, then fury, then superhuman self-control took over
“Get out from here and never ever come again. I would ask the security to stop you from entering the building” Despite all the control, her voice was almost hysterical.
He gave a puzzled look but looked at me for a long time. “ You don’t realize how good you would be as a model. You look perfect. You would be helping me professionally too!”
With that, he walked out. But he did say before he closed the door. “ I will be in touch, let me know what you thought of my proposal”
She carefully wiped mascara off her eyes and tied her loose hair into a ponytail before she stepped out of the clinic. The late evening traffic was heavy and she was dead tired before she reached home.
Yet she was unable to sleep. Despite the anger and the shock, she thought of his words again and again. When she finally slept as the clock was striking six there was a smile on her lips.
It was her friend who brought some sense into her confused mind. The matter must be reported to the police she said, that guy was obviously a stalker.
“You encouraged his flirting by being silent. Now see, he has the guts to say such things!”
“No, so far there was nothing to show he was having such thoughts. It came quite suddenly” she tried defending.
But she kept on getting messages from him. Imploring her, trying to convince her he kept on flooding her inbox.
Her friend, when told this, was thoughtful this time.
“You do one thing. You say yes and then we will take police and reach there. Any suspicion or any smart trick we know what to do”
She was confused and scared. Not that her husband noticed any change, yet she felt guilty moving about him. Her child was too busy in his school to talk to her. Eventually, her friend talked her into it. She messaged him that she was ready. When and where he had to tell her.
She willed herself to not check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous.
And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.
But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?
First of all, he says he was out of the city, so replying late. He was glad that she agreed. And shocking her, he says he would like to paint at her home! She would be at ease at her home and he did not want her under stress.
Again her friend took charge and made her accept his proposal. “My cousin is Deputy Superintendent of police here. I will ask him to come here. You just accept the proposal. Rest will be taken care”.
Her fingers were trembling when she messaged her acceptance. He said he would come to her home at 11 the next day after her husband leaves for office!
She didn’t sleep that night.
Her friend and her cousin came to her place at ten. They planned to wait in the bedroom and spring themselves into action whenever things seem to go out of control.
As the clock struck eleven she stopped breathing and started when her mobile rang. It was her secretary asking about rescheduling the appointments. She mumbled appropriately.
At 12, he was yet to come. She did not want to call him or message him. At two, there was no sign of him still. At 3 she messaged him. No reply came.
At 5, when her son came home from school, her friend got up and said, “ I think we called his bluff or he realized he went too far. You just call him. Put it on speaker mode, let us settle this”
Though she was reluctant she was forced to call. Taking a deep breath she dialed the number. Then, looking strangely at the mobile she said, “ It says it is not a valid number!”
“I know,” her friend said triumphantly, “ That fellow is a trickster. You have his address, just give it. Let my cousin check that up!”
Next day dawned cheerfully and her friend landed up almost to wake her up, “My cousin says the address must be wrong. There seems nobody by that name anywhere in that vicinity!”
“How is that possible?” she mumbled, thoughts still incoherent after a second sleepless night in a row.
“Not only that even the number belonged to some lady who has been out of the country for last three months!”
“Come on, how is it possible” when he has been in touch for so long, how could it be?
“He must have given his other details like his office or studio address, any other clue at your clinic. Let us check that”
Both of them rushed to the clinic. The morning cheerful sun was a little more merrier in the clear blue sky.
They took two steps at a time and shocked her secretary who just was starting the computer and dusting his cubicle.
She took a deep breath and some control and asked him about the details of the stalker. The receptionist looked at her confusedly, “ Madam, but there is no such patient on our list!”
She was furious now. Glaring at him, she gave the date on which the first appointment with that artist was there. He murmured an apology and started searching for the computer. Leaning on the counter she was trying to collect her thoughts when her secretary said with a puzzled look, “That day there were no appointments. You called in to say you were not well and you would not come to the clinic. There is no such name in our records at all.”
She just stood expressionless as the sunlight made a halo around her head, her loose hair unkempt and fluttering. Her friend was looking at her strangely but understandingly..
She wiped the mascara off her face using a tissue and walked into her clinic.
It was good as long as it lasted.