“So, how was your first day experience?”, asked Abhay out of curiosity, rolling the metal spark-wheel of the lighter with a rasp sound and burning the cigarette.
“Night shift is really a bit, you know… uncomfortable”, I said with a little drowsiness, “But considering…”
“But considering the money you are paid, it seems fine right?”
“Also, it’s just about Saturdays. On other days, I’ve normal shift.”
“Same here”, said Abhay, “It is really tough for the first few days though. Then you get habituated; everything becomes simple and easy… and boring too.”
It was twenty-past eleven at night by my watch, which was literally increasing my anxiety as I had not seen trace of any bus at all during the time while we were standing at the bus stop.
“Do you think we’ll be able to reach home at all?”, I asked, “I mean it’s really late.”
“Where do you live?”
“Nilganj, near Barrackpore.”
With an unpleasant smile he informed, “Well, I don’t think there is any Barrackpore bound bus after 11pm. Sorry! I thought you were going towards Barasat.”
His words made me immensely disappointed. It was the worst that could happen after the day’s long, hectic work.
Just then, we saw a bus coming and needless to say, it was Abhay’s ride back to home. The light from the headlights fell on our faces as it was coming close and then it halted just in front of us.
Before boarding the bus, he advised me to go back to the office, spend the night there and come back to the bus stop early in the morning as the bus service towards Barrackpore was supposed to be resumed from six in the morning. I waved him goodnight, though the word ‘good’ seemed kind of sarcasm for the worst night of my life.
So, in the end, I was all alone standing with my brown satchel at Kashimpur bus stop, which was eventually a no man’s land at that very moment. Then my puzzled mind decided to walk back to the office after a moment of serious thinking as if I had been provided with millions of options.
By the way, I must admit that it was really a pleasant rural nocturnal view of the second week of December. The vast paddy fields were on my right and small pea fields and few houses were on my left. I could see forlorn images of trees here and there though not clearly enough as the whole surrounding seemed slightly foggy while I was walking towards my office. This part of the town was more like countryside – bare and seemingly forgotten. The moon was my only friend assisting me silently. One or two owls, sitting on the branches of trees, were looking at me with their round wide eyes and hooting, as if they were some alien deities smiling at me, - at my poor fate. The crickets’ sound was the only sound breaking the quiet of night, apart from the owls’. I checked my watch with a long sigh of despair – it was ten to twelve.
On the spur of the moment, a foggy breeze chilled my skin. The mystic nature of it started creating a hazy spooky ambience around me. I could hear the rumble of a bus while the lights were gradually coming, close to me. When it was close enough and slowed down, I saw “Route 9B” written on it. It looked like a small, green, ancient machine which had been forgotten just like this deserted land. The entire structure resembled to a giant tin can with slight dents all over its body. However, my joy knew no bound when I discovered it was heading towards Barrackpore.
Without wasting any more time, I got into the bus quickly and it started rolling again rapidly piercing the calmness of the night, jerking all the way because of the rough countryside road. There were about five or six fatigued passengers looking half-dead just like me. Taking the headphone out of my bag, I plugged that in to engross myself into music having my eyes closed.
Suddenly, the utter silence was disturbed by a quarrel – an old man was teasing and shouting upon a young lady. She was trying to protest. But he was angrily warning her to shut her mouth constantly accusing her of something.
“What’s the matter? Please just stop quarreling at midnight.”, I shouted being irritated, “The day’s hectic work is enough. Just stop whatever it is.”
The man, with his smoky-grey hair, faded skin and musty clothes, had a devious look altogether. Hearing my last words, he glanced at me with his gunmetal eyes while grabbing the nearest seat in such a way that I could sense disgust and anger in it.
The conductor, who had been sleeping all the time, suddenly woke up asking, “What happened? Why so noise Saab?”
“Nothing just take the fare”, I answered and just by that the situation was managed.
When the lady turned to me, I realized that I knew her. She had been one of my closest and oldest friends since college-life.
“Wow Ravi, what a surprise!”, she said with soothing voice sitting beside me.
“Sakhi!”, I said astonishingly, “And it’s been really long. It’s like three years since I last saw you.”
She had glossy skin, slender eyebrows and honey-sweet voice which I always adored. Her sharp curious eyes were looking straight at mine. Her coal-black hair was plunging over her shoulders. With her faded green salwar-kameez and shaded yellow scarf, she was looking vibrant and beautiful.
“Hmm. Long enough. Never thought we would meet like this”, she said smiling at me, “Look at you… your look has completely changed.”
“Yours too. I was almost not able to recognize you”, I said and we both laughed just like old days. Her angel-white teeth were gleaming at me every now and then.
In a lonely night meeting an ancient friend in an ancient bus – did not seem like the worst night at all. Moreover, it felt good inside while sharing thoughts among us and recalling our old memories.
“So, what are you doing these days?”, I asked.
“Nothing much. Just teaching at a primary school. Sometime give tuitions. On Saturdays I have to do some crappy job to bear the cost of my mother’s medicines.”
“Why, what happened?”, I inquired.
“She has a stone in her kidney. Not serious though, but doctors said better to do the surgery within few months. Everything will be completely fine after that.”
“Oh, what about your father?”, I asked.
“He died about a year ago getting struck by lightning.”
“Initially it was difficult you know. But everything is fine now. I’m also thinking to leave this job after this month, just receiving my final salary.
I’ve saved enough money for my mother’s operation.”
Then we remained silent for a moment. I realized that her circumstances were not good enough but she was a tough girl indeed.
I noticed that awkward old man’s dead emotionless eyes were fixed on me. When our eyes met, he queerly looked away. I could not understand what the problem was with that person but his behavior started irritating me.
The silence was broken by her question, “What about you?”
“I am just the same you can see. Executive officer at a call center at Kashimpur. Have to spend extra time on Saturdays. So here I am.”
“Do you still do that writing thing?”
“Well, of course. But I do more reading than writing now-a-days. May be lack of inspiration.”
Hearing my last words, she laughed strangely and implied, “I wish you get your inspiration very soon. Or maybe you can write about us!”
“Us?”, I asked surprisingly.
“Hell yes, of course”, she said being extremely excited, “Just think, like meeting one of your oldest friends in such a weird place… Talking about old days… pretty awesome, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s amazing”, I said smiling at her, “You never give up your excitement. Do you?”
“Never!”, she smirked, “So what about your that girlfriend? Are you married?”
“No. You remember, once you said that she was not going to last long? Same happened.”
She laughed, “Told you she was a bitch. But no worries, you’re going to get a better one.”
“What about you?”, I asked.
“I score zero in relationships, you know that.” She replied.
It was half past twelve by my watch and I was about to get down within few minutes.
“Sakhi, would you give me …” I stuttered.
“Give you what?”
“I mean I was just thinking if you would like to talk sometimes other than Saturday nights you know!”
I could not figure out why she did not understand what my implication was. So, I idiotically gave her my number writing on a paper.
“Oh! You’re just asking my phone number!”, she laughed and quickly took the mobile out of her bag. The screen was cracked from the corner. I had no clue how she typed my number on that cracked screen, but it did work and she rang me back.
“You are very poor in asking a girl for her number, you know that?”, she said teasing me.
I smiled being a bit embarrassed and got down from the bus bidding her goodnight.
After meeting her that night, I never regretted my night shift at all. Rather strangely, it felt kind of refreshing.
Few days later, I tried texting her asking about going out sometime just like college-days, but she never replied. Even I tried ringing her, but her mobile was either unreachable or switched off.
Days passed, and soon I was again standing at the Kashimpur bus stop like last Saturday. Abhay had already boarded his ride leaving me all alone standing there. This time as I knew a bus to my destination was still there, I was not worried at all. But I was looking at my wrist watch every five or ten minutes. Time seemed to be slowing down with every passing second.
Finally, the little green grandfather bus arrived on time. Occupying the same spot and plugging in the headphone, I was lost in my own thoughts not paying attention to the world around me.
After a few minutes, my thoughts were disturbed, perhaps by a peculiar feeling which I had no words to explain. I had no idea how much time had passed. Hence, I tried looking at my watch, but surprisingly, it was not on my hand. I pulled my phone out of my pocket. All of a sudden, the whole surrounding glittered for a moment with a flash of fork lightning out of blue making me hear an ear-splitting sound of thunder. The phone was dropped from my hand due to a sudden jerk I felt. The screen got cracked. I peeked out of the window. It looked like a terrible storm outside. Before I could even think of how a storm like this was possible in such an odd season, the driver started shouting, “Brakes gone! Brakes gone!”, making me petrified. I tried to stand up and do something, but it felt like I was frozen and glued to the seat. Being utterly frightened my mind just got blank.
The bus was running recklessly on the rough, empty road. Suddenly, it veered abruptly to the left, and trembled down the road shattering the window glasses, probably hitting the sideway rocks. All I could hear was the shrilling sound of the metal screeching the road.
Just then, Sakhi woke me up. Everything I had seen felt like a vivid horrible dream. But it appeared to be really silly when I realized that I had been sleeping and dreaming all this.
Glancing at my watch, I saw it was ten past twelve. Then I smiled looking at her trying to react normally.
“Are you okay? You are sweating all over!”, she asked.
I saw that strange old man again staring at me inexplicably. His awkward look again started irritating me.
As I did not respond to Sakhi, she repeated her question. This time I replied, “Yes, I guess… I’m fine. It’s just some weird dream.”
Seeing her curious eyes, I could not help telling the entire story. After listening to me, she laughed loudly making me feel embarrassed a bit. But her smile had an admirable charm – always. It could make you forget all of your stress or tiredness.
“Well you could write your story on it”, she said, laughing at me, which felt like sarcasm though.
I replied that it would be a very bad idea, moreover it was dull and strange although being scary.
“Sometimes even stranger things happen”, she said with a smile which I felt a little unusual.
We continued talking about the old days – smiling and laughing at each other for few minutes. The bus was rolling at its usual speed. The night outside was dark. The only light source that slightly influenced the darkness was the moon.
“Hey, I tried texting you one day. But you didn’t reply”, I informed.
She did not comment instantly, so I kept on saying, “I called you also, even I think you picked it up, but I couldn’t hear anything from your side.”
“This has been happening for few days. I think, I’ve some kind of problem in my phone you know lately”. Surely, it was surprising that her phone was even working with such crack on its screen.
“Hmm. You need to repair it soon”, I suggested.
“Yeah, I will.”
The bus was stopping once or twice only to pick up the passengers because apparently the majority of people who work that late are from nearby cities like Barrackpore or Barasat. No one was actually getting off. Hence, it did not take much time to get close to Nilganj. It was time to say ‘bye’.
I noticed that she had some kind of bruise on her right hand. It looked like a severe wound. I probably did not observe this earlier.
“What’s that?”, I asked indicating the injury.
“Oh, that’s just… Nothing… just an accident long ago. Nothing serious”, she replied hesitantly, “some scars never fed away I suppose”. Her last utterance had a sense of pain which I could not neglect.
“Hey! You can talk to me if there is anything that’s bothering you okay?”, I felt like she had some issues that she had been dealing with. There was something she had not told me yet.
“Yeah. I know”, she replied.
Thereafter, the bus reached my stop. Telling her that we would meet again next week, I got down the bus.
Next Saturday, when I reached my office, Abhay told me that he had to go to Duttakpukur for some work given by our boss. He had already planned to leave the work early, but after this extra job, he could not help asking me, “Hey, Ravi. Listen.”, he said, “I have to reach Barrackpore, at my uncle’s house by ten o’clock. But because of this task…”, he sighed.
I knew that Saturday’s office work was not that heavy at all. So, I suggested, “May be, today I can manage this office. You go wherever you need to finishing the task that the boss has given.”
A smile appeared on his face. “Thanks man! I owe you a treat”, he said happily and left early by six in the evening towards Duttakpukur which was at about thirty minutes distance by bus.
In the end, at about nine o’clock, everybody else had already left and I was working all alone in the office. On the other hand, Abhay was supposed to catch the bus towards Barrackpore and thereafter, probably enjoy a party.
But the time passed by quickly. Soon I was standing at the Kashimpur bus stop again all by myself waiting for the ancient ride. It was a new moon night though. The surrounding seemed exceptionally dark as no trace of light was visible near. Only my mobile phone was doing the job of providing a little bit of light to clear the darkness of the pitch-black night. There was sheer silence prevailing everywhere. Even the crickets’ sound was also little low.
Finally, my tin-can-ride appeared just on time like previous days. Getting up, I grabbed the same seat again and plugged in the headphone just like every day. I was feeling extremely exhausted like someone had put huge burden on my shoulder. Also, there was headache to make the condition worse.
At that very moment, I got a call from Abhay.
“Hello! What’s the matter Abhay?”, I asked.
I could not hear properly whatever he was saying. All I could hear was a weird unintelligible noise – might be some signaling problem. Poor network is always a problem in these rural areas of India. I tried ringing him back twice, but it did not connect.
Sakhi got up at Mirhati as usual. But she looked down today. Inquiring her about it, I came to know that she was also tired and exhausted.
Quickly I tried spotting that irritating awkward old man but could not. His absence provided me with a sense of relaxation.
She, being silent for some time, was looking out of the window. Then she murmured, “I wonder if you remember?”
Resting her head on my left shoulder, she whispered, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep… But I have promises to keep.” She sighed as if something was going on in her mind.
“And miles to go before I sleep…”, I said recalling Robert Frost, “And miles to go before I sleep.”
“But the wind of circumstances you know!”, she said with a sullen face, “Sometimes you just don’t get to walk miles.”
“Well, true… you can’t control the wind, but can adjust your sails”, I replied looking at her. A fainted smile appeared on her face.
“Doesn’t it look like… I mean this moment, kind of ‘Meeting at Night’?”, she asked curiously.
I was surprised that she continued to talk about poems. Laughing at her, I replied, “It looks like you are in a poetic mood.”
“Yeah but, answer me.”
“Things like that doesn’t happen you know.”
“What? Secret love?”
“No. The entire concept of love you know… that we read in Novels, poems or watch in movies, ‘I’ll love you until I die, and even after death’ or ‘I meet you at the clouds’… such things seem over-dramatic.”
“’Cause practically it does not happen and it’s strange that people believe this falsity.”
“How do you know? Sometimes even stranger things may happen”, she replied with a warm smile.
After that I don’t know how much time I talked but finally I dozed off due to tiredness.
She suddenly woke me up shaking my hands as if she was panic-stricken. I was having a severe abrupt headache, felt like someone had pinned my brain. My vision was blurred because of the pain and the surrounding sounds seemed to be echoing. I could hear her voice saying, “Wake up Ravi! You have to get down. This is your stop. Now! Wake up!” It might be my imagination but she sounded like shouting at me being extremely stressed and tremendously frightened of something I did not know. She was so close to my face that I could sense the shiver in her breath. It did not look like everything was fine. Most probably, I saw similar scars on her forehead as I had already seen on her hand, though I could not tell with certainty.
Just then, I heard an unexpected raucous voice saying, “Get down! This is your stop.” Then it shouted looking at Sakhi, “This is all your fault! He should not be here. I told you the very first day.”
Surprisingly, it was that awkward old man. I was fossilized for a moment seeing him out of nowhere standing right beside me. Who the hell was he? Why was he there? Why was he talking to us? Everything was beyond my understanding as I was puzzled altogether.
So, I asked in a sluggish tone, “What’s going on? Is everything all right?”
“Sorry son! You don’t belong here”, whispered that awkward person.
“You need to get down. Now!”, she shouted again.
I stood up and noticed that the bus was not moving – it was stopped there; might be waiting for me to get off. The lights of the bus were dim and flickering now and then. Six or seven people were sitting there with their inscrutable bloodless faces. All of them were staring at me – silently. The weird ambience influenced the gradual increase of my heartbeat.
“But…”, before I was able to say anything further, she pushed me towards the door.
While I was stepping down the stairs, my phone started ringing – it was Abhay again.
All of a sudden, I felt a remarkable change as the fresh air outside the bus reduced the headache along with my drowsiness.
“Hello!”, I said picking up the phone.
“Ravi, can you hear me?” said Abhay.
The bus-engine started rumbling. Peeking through the window, Sakhi said, “Goodbye, Take care!”
I asked Ravi why he had called while waving at her. The bus started rolling. Surprisingly, her face looked a little dusty and hair became a bit grungy within a moment.
“You said, there was a bus towards Barrackpore around 11pm. I reached before that… but there is no bus after 10pm in that direction.” Abhay said in one breath.
“What… What rubbish?”, I shouted shockingly.
“The local people at the bus stand said that a bus had used to leave at eleven one year ago.”
“What the hell…”
Abhay continued saying rapidly, “An accident occurred last year, few people died. And the bus got destroyed.”
I was struck dumb on the last utterance of Abhay. I could not decide how to react – my mind was constantly making fail attempts to draw a meaning out of it. Being numb, I was rooted to the spot immediately. It was one of those rare jaw dropping moments when one could feel surprise, fear, fright, shock – everything at the same time. Everything seemed like a dreadful hallucination.
Abhay kept on saying, “I could not finish my work on time. It was half past ten when I reached the bus stand. I was constantly calling you…”
Turning back, I tried locating the bus. It was far away, but still distinguishable. By the motion of its red lights at the back, I could see it trembling and running recklessly on the rough road. Only the words “Stranger things may happen” started echoing repetitively in my head. Again, the surrounding glittered with the flash of fork lightning with an awfully scary loud sound. This time, I saw the spark of bolt landing somewhere close enough to the bus although it was not clear whether it stroke the bus or not. A gloomy air touched my skin. The red lights instantly faded away turning my sight pitch-black again.