The Ace Of Hearts
The Ace Of Hearts8 mins 132 8 mins 132
From middle-aged men striking business deals over a cup of coffee and a plate of sandwiches to men and women, young and in love, giggling as they shared a cup of the finest coffee, caramel, and ice cream shake, customers had come and gone. But Rayan just sat there, in a black and white plaid shirt, powder blue jeans and a pair of black and blue running shoes, a black-haired tall fellow with his wheatish and chiseled frame in a pair of black-rimmed rectangular glasses, brooding at the corner table of his favorite coffee shop, invisible to everyone, perhaps even ignorant of them.
He had been there for hours, staring blankly at blinking cursor on the white screen of his MacBook, while the rest of his espresso had turned stone cold.
Rayan's previous book didn't do so well with either the audience or the critics. Even then his trusted literary agent, Feroz, at his rooftop party on the eve of 2019, had promised him to get a good deal with a leading publishing house of Kolkata, on the condition that he was with finished his upcoming manuscript by the end of September of 2020. The year 2019 had gone by within the blink of an eye while January of 2020 was slowly walking by, but Rayan was at a loss for ideas.
The previous year had rendered him impatient.
He had managed to get perpetually stuck at his high-paying boring desk job at a reputed company but he was afraid to quit. Who'd pay his rent and his bills?
His love life had gone down the trash chute because he knew that if he had to wake up to Daliah's routined and smothering love another day, he'd put a pillow over her face while she slept. He had overcome the urge and one fine morning asked her to pack her things and leave, saying he didn't love her anymore. She'd cried her eyes out. "I'll be gone by the time you're home," she'd said, and Rayan had come back to an empty apartment that night. Daliah had left with her things and her dignity.
He planned failed trips, successfully fought with his parents that one time he visited, and even fell out of touch with his tight-knit group of friends.
But no matter what he did or tried, there was no escaping the writer's block that enveloped him a little more with every passing second.
"Sir, it's almost ten, we're about to close."
Rayan pulled himself back to reality and looked up at the waitress standing by his table, smiling awkwardly, the bill in her hand.
He nodded and quickly gulped down the remaining coffee, took the bill from her and reached for his purse. "Here. Uh, keep the change," he smiled.
"Thank you!" She beamed, took the empty and stained coffee cup and headed back to the counter.
Rayan closed his laptop and put it inside his sling bag before slinging it around his shoulder and walking out of the coffee shop.
Park Street was still recovering from its Christmas and New Year exploits. He loved this part of the city. Rayan leaned against the rails by the pavement and sighed as the night danced away with the lights, some still, some moving.
He was parked two crossings away since he liked to walk a little. But he didn't head straight for his car for tonight, he wasn't in a rush. Rayan wanted to lose himself in the moment, breathe a little...
A sudden tug on his sling bag broke through the momentary euphoria.
Rayan immediately turned to his left and looked down to find a heart-shaped red balloon on the end of a stick sitting inside one of the designed metallic hoops on the bag. Confused, he looked up and noticed a little girl with unkempt hair, barefoot and in torn and tattered clothes, running away, a bunch of the same balloons in hand.
"Hey! Wait!" Rayan ran after the little girl, the balloon now in his hand.
She looked back and giggled, but kept running.
She was fast. Rayan started losing his breath, suddenly realizing that he hadn't visited the gym in months.
Huffing and puffing, he yelled again, "Hey! Little girl! Wait! I don't want to buy a balloon!"
The girl stopped behind a parked car at a crossroad and turned around, smiling broadly. Rayan finally jogged to a halt in front of her, breathing heavily.
"I... I don't... I don't want to buy a balloon! Here..." He held out the balloon, beckoning her to take it.
"But you don't have to buy. It's for you."
"What? No! Well, at least, if you don't want the balloon back, take the money for it. How much is it?"
"They are twenty rupees each but I won't take the money."
She shrugged, still smiling.
"Why won't you take the money?", Rayan insisted.
"Because it's for you!"
The girl looked at him for a couple of seconds and calmly replied, "You looked sad, that's why."
Rayan looked at this little girl, perhaps six or seven years old, her eyes filled with some sort of light he had never witnessed. He didn't know what to say or what to do.
The girl smiled again and waved at him.
"No, don't go!"
She waited quietly, an innocent smile still lurking on her face.
Rayan looked around swiftly and noticed a small shop across the street selling egg rolls and other snacks. "Are you hungry?"
She shook her head.
"Come on, don't be shy. I'm hungry too. Let's go and have egg rolls!", he smiled.
She paused for a moment and then stepped forward and held his little finger. Together, they crossed the street and approached the shop.
"Here, sit on a chair." Rayan pointed at the empty row of plastic chairs carefully arranged on the pavement, kept his balloon on one of the chairs, and turned towards the shop owner.
The man making the rolls displaying extreme skill, with a teenager by his side tending to the customers, asked, "What will you have, Dada?"
"Do you have mutton egg rolls?"
"Yes. But you'll have to wait a while."
"That's fine. Prepare a mutton egg roll without chili for the child and a single egg roll with chili for me."
"Ok, Dada. Please have a seat."
Rayan came back and took a seat beside the girl who was lost in her world, curiously observing the balloons in her hand. "What's your name?"
"My Prabhu Dada calls me Lila."
"Where do you stay?"
"Nearby, under the bridge."
"What about your Ma and Baba?"
"They live in the village, Dada says."
"I don't know."
"And your Dada? What does he do?"
"Dada, Payal Didi and I sell toys and balloons."
"How old are they?"
"I don't know, but they're big."
"Big like me?"
Lila looked up at him and chortled briefly before turning her attention back to the balloons. "No, you're bigger!"
"Haha, ok! How long have you lived under the bridge?"
"Do you go to school?"
"No, but Prabhu Dada had gone when he was little. He has three books. Payal Didi and I sometimes look at the pictures. Dada promised to teach us how to read. He knows."
Rayan smiled a little. Lila was still invested in the balloons. He knew he had a lot more questions but perhaps Lila wasn't the right person to ask. Were Prabhu and Payal around? No one certainly came around looking for her.
The shop owner called out, "Dada, your rolls are done."
Rayan stood up immediately and walked to him, taking the two rolls in one hand. "Which one is for the child?"
"The one in your right hand."
"Ok. Dada, can you make two more mutton egg rolls the same way? Just make sure you pack them carefully so it doesn't get cold or messy."
The man nodded and got back to frying more parathas for the rolls.
"What else do you have?"
"There are six chicken pakoras left. We've stopped frying those."
"Ok, can you re-fry them and pack them too?"
The man nodded again.
Rayan came back and handed Lila the mutton egg roll. "Here."
Lila smiled, carefully placed the balloons on the chair next to hers and took the roll with her two tiny little hands.
The two of them sat side-by-side and took their time to finish their respective smoking hot rolls in comfortable silence.
"How was it?"
"Very tasty!", said Lila excitedly.
Rayan smiled and stood up once again. He took the paper pieces in which their rolls were wrapped, crumpled them and tossed them into the tiny bin.
He took a plastic jug from the counter and washed the oil off his hands with just a few drops and handed the jug to Lila. She had already wiped her hands on her skirt but she took the jug and drank some water off it like a pro before handing it back to Rayan.
As he placed the jug back on the counter, the shop owner handed him the packet of packed rolls and pakoras.
Rayan asked, "What's the bill, Dada?"
"Uh, let's see, the mutton rolls are 70 rupees per piece, the egg roll is 30 rupees and the chicken pakoras are 25 rupees per piece. So, it's a total of... Mmm, 390 rupees!"
Rayan took out his purse and handed the man four hundred rupees. "Dada, keep the change", he smiled.
"Thank you, Dada!"
He turned to Lila. "Listen, this is for you and your Prabhu Dada and Payal Didi. The rolls are for them. The chicken pakoras are for all of you."
Lila stared for a split second and took the packet, somewhat thrilled at the prospect of sharing the delicacies with her siblings. She then carefully took her balloons in the other hand and hopped off the chair.
"Don't forget your balloon!", she said with a grin and hopped off into the night, disappearing around the corner.
Rayan watched her leave and then picked up the balloon.
A million thoughts racing through his mind, he lazily took his time to walk towards his parked Tata Indigo. The traffic was clear this late, so it took him roughly thirty minutes to reach his apartment building in Garia. By the time Rayan unlocked his door on the fourth floor of the building, it was almost midnight.
He walked into his lifeless apartment, switched on the lights, kicked away his shoes and put down his bag on the sofa before slumping on it, the balloon in hand.
There was a thin necked empty vase on the coffee table in front of him. He sat up straight and put the stick of the balloon inside the vase as if it was a flower and let it tilt.
Hands together in a clasp, and elbows on his knees, he looked intently at the bright red heart-shaped balloon and smiled to himself.
Rayan knew what to write and most importantly, where to begin.