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"Excuse me! Do you know where Mrs Darlene Legrand stays?" asked Stephen. The man stared at him with a gesture of contempt and jostled away. Stephen reacted with a slight unfazed grin. Stephen Legrand was born in a rich and influential family. His father was a French lieutenant while his mother was an aspiring Canadian fashion designer but had later shifted to Paris, where she met his would-be-father and the rest, as we say, was history. Five years after Stephen was born, they got divorced, and his mother got his custodial rights.
The next time he saw his father was twenty-eight years later, at the burial ground. Being a military man, Mr. Legrand did not have much time to spare for Stephen and his mom. Even during the torrid times when his parents fought like rabbits, Stephen was the one who felt the most ignored. After his parents parted, the distance simply grew. Therefore, when he heard that his father had died of cancer, it was less of grief and more of a formality that led him to attend his funeral.
Stephen grew up on his mother’s alimony. In spite of the divorce, his parents never let him feel the financial crunch.
Right from his childhood, he had all the qualities of a charming man –good looks, intelligence, sociability, liveliness, amicability and so on. He was amongst the toppers in his class, so he went abroad for higher studies on a scholarship where he scored top again, became an investment banker, married a beautiful woman, adopted a two-year-old girl, and settled abroad.
Stephen diligently kept in touch with his mother during his student years. However, with time and age, he became busy with his career, and then with his own family, and then gradually, he nearly forgot about her –until of course, he got the news that his father had expired.
Attending the funeral was obviously a priority. However, with the death of his father, the alimony money would now stop coming, and so he had the responsibility to sort out everything for his mother before he returned to his wife and child. Therefore, he immediately packed his bags, bade them farewell, and went off to complete the needful.
‘Excuse me! Do you know where Mrs Darlene Legrand stays?’ Stephen asked another man, who stood near him, as he handed him over the address slip.
“Mmm...Go straight, and then take the second left by the streetlight, there you will see many red buildings. Do not enter them; instead, walk till the end of that road, take a right and then you will see some blue buildings. You have to enter one of those," he chuckled.
So, there was Stephen, standing in front of the building, cross-checking with the address slip that he held in his sweaty palms, trying to figure out which floor he was supposed to go to. Even though she was her mother, he was outright scared. It was eighteen years since he last saw her.
How should he start a conversation? What if she fails to recognise him?
“Ma, I’m sorry that I forgot about you all these years, can we start afresh?” It was easier said than done.
With trembling hands, he pressed the doorbell and waited. It was the longest wait of his life.
“Who is it?” a voice came from the other side. Then, a long pause ensued.
“Stephen, is that you?” resounded the same voice.
The problem with mothers is that you cannot surprise them. They know you all too well. It doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up, made out with your girlfriend, put on some weight, watched some porn, didn’t meet them for eighteen years, kept a ponytail, they know you all too well. She struggled with the latch, while he waited outside for another few minutes, and then she finally opened the door.
“How have you been, Ma?” enquired Stephen.
“I’m well, son. Just a little tired. Would you like some tea?” she replied.
“No, just a glass of water. Where do I keep my luggage?” he enquired again, being as formal as he could.
“It’s your house too, son. Keep them wherever you like. There is some free space by the sofa. Anyway, you sit down, I’ll be right back," she retorted, as her feeble fingers pointed at the couch.
A strange silence reverberated, as Stephen sat down and looked around. Old pieces of newspapers were stuck to cover the dents on the wall. The dimly lit tube light with the exposed electric wiring spoke of patchy housework, the decrepit fashion magazines on the old coffee table spoke of unfulfilled dreams, and the stained marble floor spoke about the futility of the situation. The sofa with the asymmetrical cushion covers talked about her survival, the sweet fruit juices and the ripe pineapples on the ageing dining table were replaced by soiled tea coasters and rotten bananas, and the big clock that he used to play with when he was a kid stood inside the showcase in solitary confinement. Something caught Stephen’s eye, as he went towards the showcase and took out the defunct big clock.
He saw a fly inside the clock glass. There was something special about this particular fly. Most of the time, it was in a state of rest. However, once in a while, it would muster up all the courage to thrust profusely against the glass, trying to break it—break itself from its shackles; to escape somehow, so that it could lead a normal life again. When this particular fly left its abode happily and excitedly to explore the world, it didn’t know many things. When it saw the big hand and the small hand of the big clock, it couldn’t wait to meet them, greet them, spend time with them; and it did. However, one uneventful day, the big hand broke, and the fly was left alone with the small hand. Then, some days later, the small hand too was taken out for some purpose, and the fly stood isolated inside the big clock. Initially, it wasn’t that bad, but gradually, it got suffocating; until the fly couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to escape. However, it couldn’t. Every morning, it would wake up and try to find the exit. Every morning, it would open its eyes, hoping that some angel would come and rescue it; but in vain. Then, with time and experience, it stopped trying altogether. The fly was done trying to escape, and it humbly accepted its fate. It realised that all good things must come to an end to give way to new things. However, occasionally, it would muster up all the courage to break the glass and set itself free.
Stephen was completely lost in thought when a certain reflection on the clock glass brought him back to his senses. It was Ma’s.
“What’s bothering you, son? Anyway, we have the funeral tomorrow," she remarked, as she handed him over the glass.
“Nothing, especially. Ma, are you really well?” Stephen responded.
“I wish all this was a dream. Sit down.”
Stephen got to know how his father had stopped sending her money a year after he went abroad, how her savings were spent on further court proceedings, how his father married again, how his grandma’s sewing machine helped her fulfil her daily minimal needs, how everyone close to her drifted away, and how lonely and pathetic and suicidal she felt at times; one shock after another.
Mrs Legrand was not really complaining. She was a strong woman, and how she had fended for herself during tough times was a proof of that. It was just that, it was a long time since she actually confided her feelings with someone close, and when she saw her son after so many years, she just opened her heart out. Stephen listened to her with great intent. He didn’t know how to react. He was obviously very angry with his father, but the plight of her mother simply broke his heart. “I won’t go to the funeral. I’ve just come to meet you and set things up for you, and then I’ll go back," Stephen burst out, as she served him dinner. It never occurred to Mrs Legrand until that point, that Stephen’s visit was temporary.
“You’ll go back?”
“I'll have to, Ma. You know very well, I have a family there.”
“Okay!” she sighed, somehow managing to control the immediate sadness within her.
“But, you must attend the funeral. You have to. Do this for my sake, please. I won’t be there because she’ll be there, and I won’t let our family name disappear from your father’s history so easily. No, you must.”
Stephen attended the funeral next morning. He saw many strangers there. He saw military men, policemen, politicians, and other influential people. Then he saw his father’s friends and relatives; some genuine, some plastic. He saw his ailing uncle writhing in agony. He saw his cousin brother suffering from obesity. Finally, he saw his dad’s second wife and Murphy, Mr Legrand’s second son. He saw them weep and wail and lost and silent. He saw them with every possible negative emotion and every probable negative sentiment; and yet strangely, he couldn’t hate them. Stephen really tried, but he couldn’t. Therefore, he introduced himself to them –and they talked, they shared past memories and laughed, and Stephen understood how wrong it was of him to be angry with them.
Stephen came back late that night. He had to tell her everything in detail, and so he did; although, with minor alterations.
He lied about the fact that his father’s body looked frail and solemn, that his skin looked jagged, that his silky hair was replaced by dull baldness. He lied about the fact that he felt that his dad’s other family was faultless.
He lied about the fact that he liked them, even admired them. He lied about the fact that no one cared that his mother didn’t come to the funeral. Stephen kept on comforting her, reiterating how she was badly missed, wanted, and talked about, during the entire ceremony. One needs only a few harmless lies to keep someone happy.
The next two days were spent in heaps of old government files. Stephen became absorbed in sorting out things for his mom. He ran to the banks, to the pension office, to the post office, to the income-tax office, to the passport office, to the offices of the Health Department, and to the million other offices that would in some way or the other make his mom’s life easier. Mrs Legrand didn’t really give a dime about them. She was way past that age when she actually cared about a better living. All she wanted him to do was spend time with her. It had been a long time since someone showed some care for her. It had been a long time since she felt wanted. However, Stephen was part of a generation, which thought that security and money were the most important ingredients of a happy life. It wasn’t. On the third day, Mrs Legrand couldn’t take it any longer.
“Stephen, I’ve lived all these years alone. I know how to take care of myself. You’ve done enough already. I know absolutely nothing about you. You said you got married. I’ve not even seen pictures of my daughter-in- law and granddaughter. Do you even want to introduce them to me?” The sudden outburst startled Stephen to a great extent.
“I’m so sorry, Ma. Of course, I’ll show you their pictures.” Stephen reached out to his wallet and took out a picture from it. “Here they are!”
“She’s beautiful. Jessica, right?” she asked.
“Yes. And she’s Sophia. We named her after you," Stephen remarked, as he looked at his mother affectionately.
“Thank you, Stephen. It means a lot to me.” She couldn’t hold her tears.
“Would you like to talk to them?” Stephen asked, in an attempt to cheer her up.
“I’d love to talk to them, Stephen.”
Stephen logged into his Skype account; and there they were, in no time. He introduced her and them to each other, and then moved beside Mrs Legrand as they started talking. She talked to her daughter-in-law and her grand daughter, and told them how she loved them. She told them how mischievous Stephen used to be when he was a kid; as they laughed and giggled. She told them, how she used to miss Stephen every single night when he was abroad, and how wonderful it was to see him after so many years. She told them everything she possibly could in that one conversation. It was a long time since she felt so happy and contented.
Another three days passed, as they grew closer. Stephen had his own share of problems, how he wanted a fatter paycheck, how he wanted a bigger house, how he wanted a bigger car, and how love and family were by-products of the former possessions. They bonded over glasses of cheap wine, over cups of tea, over packs of cards, over lousy attempts at concocting innovative beef recipes. They bonded over brighter lights, monochromatic cushion covers, a cleaner marble floor, and fresher bananas on the dining table.
Mrs Legrand was having the time of her life. She could almost feel her earlier marriage days coming back to her. She started to feel like an integral part of her son’s life again. She was elated at her sudden turn of fortune. Although she knew that Stephen had to go back, there was this certain part in her that believed the contrary. Maybe, he’ll stay back if she dares to ask him. Maybe, he’ll bring his family here, and they’ll live together happily ever after.
He would take a job here, maybe a bigger house, a better car; not that she cares. As the sun would show its morning glory, they would wake up together and have breakfast. Stephen would leave for the office, while she would stay at home with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. They would watch the television together.
They would gossip about their neighbours; they would water the garden. She would play with her granddaughter, as the day would pass like the wind. Stephen would come back from office by evening, she would serve him his favourite banana porridge, then they would laugh and shout during dinner, and every night would be as wonderful as the night before. She could foresee everything in front of her eyes. She was happy. She was delighted.
Then a night later, all of a sudden, while having dinner, out of the blue moon, Stephen finally burst her bubble.
“Ma, my flight is scheduled to leave early morning tomorrow. I have settled all your papers and documents in the right order. Hopefully, you won’t face many problems with that.” He got her at ‘leave’. She couldn’t really register the words after that.
“W.w...What do you mean? You’re leaving tomorrow?” she stuttered.
“I have to, Ma. I have a family there.” That was the breaking point for her.
“Why did you have to come back and ruin my life all over again? I was perfectly all right. Who gives you the right to do that?” she exploded at him in fury. Stephen was stunned. He did not expect this in his wildest imaginations.
“Didn’t I tell you, Ma? I have a family. You know that. It is impossible for me to stay back. Please, try to understand. I have a lot of responsibilities there.” He couldn’t take it too.
“Try? That’s what I’ve been doing my entire life. I am trying. I’m constantly trying to survive. Trust me, Stephen.
At this point, I really don’t want to. You came out of nowhere, and then you gave me a dream, and now you have the authority to take it back from me? You’re just like your father.”
She threw the glass that she was holding towards Stephen, as he somehow evaded it. A gash of blood started coming out from his shoulder, and within a very few uneventful seconds, she started yowling to no avail. She just couldn’t take it anymore.
Flabbergasted and obviously, extremely angry, Stephen stormed out from the living room to the guest room and locked the door from the inside.
“He did as much as he could. How could she accuse him of that?” he thought.
He could still hear her screaming, wailing, and yelping in pain, and in sadness and grief. He plugged his ears with his fingers to mute the noise, but it was unbearable. He was hurt, too. He put his headphones on, played some loud music, and lay down on the bed. It was good. He couldn’t hear her anymore. He thought of apologising for his rude behaviour, next morning. After all, she was her mother, and who knows when they’ll meet again. He thought about his trip, whether he did everything right, whether her life will be easier now and finally thought himself to sleep.
Stephen woke up next morning, to the bright sunlight that flashed through the window into his eye. He opened his drowsy eyes and saw the time on his mobile phone. It was time for him to go. Mrs Legrand wasn’t shouting anymore. She probably cried her way to sleep.
He took a bath, dressed immaculately, and then daintily opened the door, so as to not wake her up. He moved into the living room to check his luggage, and then he noticed the shards of glass from last night, still lying on the floor. “Last night was really awful," he remembered.
He saw a broomstick by the fridge, so he thought of cleaning out the area. He had just begun to collect the pieces of broken glass together in one place when something caught his eye. He picked up one of the pieces of glasses, and his heart suddenly started throbbing profusely. This was the clock glass. He ran towards the showcase and saw that the big clock was missing. His heart started beating even faster. His eye wandered towards the balcony as a little part of the big clock was visible through the door. He treads lightly towards the balcony, sweating rapidly.
He saw Mrs Legrand lying on the floor, sleeping peacefully, with her throat slit, and blood all over. Her body was soaked in red, and her hand had held on onto a piece of the clock glass. Stephen ran towards the body, shouting, “Ma! What have you done?” However, to no avail. Stephen checked her pulse. She was gone. Mrs. Legrand was dead.
He noticed the big clock lying quietly beside her. The fly had finally set itself free.