There was an unusual rattle at the front gate.
‘Who is it?’ she called out straining her quivering voice.
‘Bijoy is that you?’
While saying this she moved closer to the gate and found that it was not Bijoy but a tall young man with a bike. For a clearer look, she switched on the lamp. ‘Excuse me, madam, Could you please tell me the direction to reach this hotel,’ he said in a very polite tone while handing over a small piece of paper to her.
‘I am afraid this hotel is going to be too far from here. You might have taken the wrong turn,’ she said expressing her worry.
‘But I was guided to this lane by a local in Morjim. I need to reach this hotel by tonight otherwise my booking will be cancelled,’ he said in a disappointed tone.
‘It will take you about two hours and you might reach the hotel only after midnight.’
‘Oh!, he said with a dejected look . He kept staring back into the path that had brought him there. ‘That’s going to be tough, considering that there is no network here and no street lights in these areas and I am also beginning to feel the hunger pangs.’
‘Is it possible to find a restaurant nearby?’
‘No dear, there isn’t any restaurant close by.’
Seeing the helpless look on his face Susan said, ‘Why don’t you join me for dinner?’
His face lit up after hearing this but he was contemplating.
‘Don’t think so much. I am anyway waiting to send dinner through Bijoy for travellers staying at the Morjim Beach Guest House. I have enough food for the two of us,’ Susan said with a twinkle in her eyes.
His face broke into a wide smile. Bijoy arrived soon and she went out quickly with the bag full of packed food boxes. As she walked back, the backpacker was standing near the door and observing the house.
‘Come in ….’
Her voice was sweet enough to shake him off his dazed state.
‘I didn’t get your name dear.’
‘Oh! Hi!! I am Lorenzo,’ he said giving her a warm handshake.
‘From Malaga.’ He nodded.
‘What brings you to Morjim, Enzo?’ she enquired enthusiastically.
‘ Errrr…. Can I call you Enzo?’
His smile was infectious and it sent out a positive vibe instantly. It had been long since she had met someone from another country.
As they walked into the house Lorenzo told her about his travel plans. He was an architect by profession and had come to India for an assignment where he was researching diversity in architecture. He had already covered Nepal, Bhutan, New Delhi, Kashmir, Kerala and Hampi with Goa as the last place in his list. He was in his late twenties but seemed very mature for his age. His manners impressed Susan so much that she could trust a complete stranger like him and let him into her house at such an odd hour. The only other regular entrant to her house at this time was Bijoy.
While Lorenzo got comfortable in Susan’s old dilapidated house, she lay the table for dinner that comprised traditional Goan cuisine specially cooked to entice the taste buds of the travellers.
Lorenzo was completely smitten by the delicious food that she had prepared. He was extremely thankful to her for the instant help she had offered. He did have a mind to leave after dinner but when Susan insisted that he should stay over for the night, which he readily agreed. Talking to Susan was also interesting. While they took a tour of her 100 year old mansion she told him about how she had inherited it from her parents and grandparents. They owned a fishery near Morjim which she had sold a few years back.
‘I was not able to manage everything at once. After the demise of my parents I was practically alone but maybe with time, I felt happy being alone,’ she had said and smiled.
‘I learnt the art of cooking traditional Goan dishes from my mother which I did not want to let go of and that is how this small business of cooking meals for travellers started.’
While they took a stroll over the other floor in her house, Lorenzo felt excited as he was able to notice a unique architecture behind the dust and cob-web covered ceiling and walls. His eyes did not fail to notice the creativity that was behind the construction of the century old house which had been renovated only once since then.
The morning after, he was served with warm tea and an English Breakfast made to suit his taste. As he sat in the courtyard with a tiny garden adjacent to it, he told, ‘Susie, I will be going to the hotel in a while where my accommodation had been booked. But I will come back again some other day to have the delicious food that you make.’
Susan was excited to have someone stay at her home years after her parents had passed away. She felt a little sad thinking that he would have to leave soon as she was enjoying his company. But for a change, she had the courage to trust a complete stranger which she never wanted to in the first place.
In a while Lorenzo was on his way to the hotel in Morjim. As Lorenzo reached his hotel he found that the hotel accommodation had been cancelled as he had not checked in on the time and had failed to inform them about his delay. After speaking to his manager in Spain, Lorenzo decided to go to Calangute or Candolim in search for a suitable accommodation. On his way back, Lorenzo thought of dropping by at Susan’s place and bidding her goodbye as he would not be visiting Morjim again.
Susan’s happiness knew no bounds when Lorenzo came home again, but she had no clue what running in his creative mind as he walked in. His decision to bid good-bye had changed completely as he narrated the incident to her and asked very hesitantly, ‘Susie, can I ask you for a favour?’
‘I am not very comfortable in searching for a hotel again. If you don’t mind, can I stay here till my assignment is complete? I loved staying over at your place yesterday and would love to spend some more time here. This place is quaint and beautiful and I feel it is perfect for me to stay over and work.’
Susan’s happiness knew no bounds. She ushered him in and told him to choose any room on the first floor which was comfortable for him. A day passed by in just settling in the house and talking to Susan. Lorenzo observed everything that was happening around for a couple of days. He had even made a pact with Susan that he was going to pay for the stay and the food that was served, since she deserved every penny for the hospitality that she was providing.
Bijoy had also become Lorenzo’s close friend in a few days. He was smart enough to tell him details about the places which could interest him as an architect. Lorenzo casually asked Susan over dinner one night, ‘Susie, will you help me out with my assignment?’
‘I will be glad to be of help to someone who trusts me already,’ Susan said chirpily.
‘With your permission, I would like to remodel your house as part of my architectural assignment plan. I love the aesthetic look here but at the same time, I want to give it a modern appeal too,’ he said beaming with energy.
Susan fell silent the moment she heard about the modification of the 100 year legend - her house, whose architecture was dearer to her than her own life.
She nodded and told him to give her some time to decide. A complete stranger walks in suddenly to her traditional house and insists her to change everything that had always been so dear to her. She was in a pensive mood over breakfast the next day. Lorenzo certainly wasn’t comfortable in pushing her further and he had also decided to vacate the house if she was not comfortable with the idea. He was out the entire day searching for alternate places to stay and that night, when he was back home for dinner, he found Susan unusually quiet.
‘Susie, I am sorry if my idea of renovating your traditional house hurt your sentiments. If you are not comfortable with it, I can totally understand’ he said.
‘Don’t misunderstand me Enzo. It is not easy to change things which have remained this way for years together. It has my life's most precious memories in it,’ she said almost wiping a tear from the corner of her eyes.
‘But, I would like a change only if you manage to keep the originality intact and would agree to take upon all the expenses that could go into the renovation as I do not have a penny extra to spend for the modification of this house. However, if this arrangement works well for your assignment, I am ready to help.’
‘Susie, you can be rest assured that I will not make any changes without discussing with you. My company is ready to fund the assignment as they also need to prove to the other clients that I can balance the traditional and the modern.’
‘And….. you know Susie, we could convert this modified house into a home-stay or a small motel where you can serve your traditional food and also invite travellers to stay. It is a sustainable way to make money and secure your future.’
‘He touched her hand in reassurance.’
Susan felt a chord pull in her heart. She was amazed by the way a complete stranger could think about helping her even though she had doubted his intentions initially and had had Bijoy check his credentials and only then did she decide to let him take the reins and welcome the change which she couldn’t have fathomed.
Work started the next day as Lorenzo laid out his architectural plan. With the help of Bijoy, the Mr.-know-all, he hired workers for the major changes that were required. The whole mansion was getting revamped but with its pillars intact and the basic plan being the same. The pact was not to remove any brick but change the look of the house. Lorenzo found it challenging but it brought out his creativity. He had just a couple of weeks at hand to complete the task.
Susan also started involving in the work with Lorenzo. It was just like building her dream home without erasing the memories of her childhood. She couldn’t thank Lorenzo enough for his dedication towards the work he promised her. She knew he had to leave after a couple of weeks but she did not want her mind to register it so soon. She found comfort in her new found company. Lorenzo was a happy man, a traveller, who only had the motive to make others happy with simple things in life. He was never attached to anyone. For his age he did not even have a girlfriend. ‘I still haven’t found the right one yet Susie,’ he had told.
As estimated, the work was completed well before time and the mansion looked perfect in every aspect. It had got the Portuguese look intact with a modern touch. The interiors looked neat despite the modifications and the garden looked beautiful with neatly trimmed shrubs and vibrant flowering and ornamental plants.
They named it ‘Hibiscus Inn’ because of the vibrant hibiscus flowers in the garden. Susan had tears in her eyes as she admired her house from outside. Lorenzo was satisfied that his project was a success. Bijoy was smart enough to bring in people to stay and let them know about the place till it gained popularity. Even the neighbours were surprised to see that a dull and lifeless house like Susan’s could turn into a new leaf.
As anticipated, travellers started flowing in and were undoubtedly in love with the place and Susan’s home cooked food. Lorenzo had taken charge and done all the administrative work. This was purely a ‘Walk-in’ inn which Susan had conceptualised keeping in mind Lorenzo’s own entry into this house.
Finally, as work came calling, it was time for Lorenzo to leave for his country. Susan stayed strong and managed to see off her Enzo. She couldn’t express it to him that he had become an important part of her life and without him it would be difficult for her to manage things around. She had realised the importance of having a good company around which had been missing in her life all this while. And as promised, Lorenzo paid her the rental amount and also bore all the expenses related to the renovation. All Susan had of him was his visiting card and the beautiful memories they had weaved together.
Although Lorenzo’s creative business idea worked well for Susan, she was all by herself again. She managed the inn for a few months but was unable to continue without her Enzo. She missed his presence and his charm. His company worked liked a medicine for Susan and she had forgotten what loneliness was. They wrote to each other regularly but it couldn’t compensate for his presence. She was losing even her physical strength without him. She knew this day would come when she would be paralysed without him. But reality hit her sooner than she had expected.
Her limbs had become weak and had started losing sensation. Her body had shrunk because of weakness and dehydration in just a few days. Travellers had to be sent back as there was no one handle the inn. Bijoy stayed day in and day out to take care of Susan but she did not respond to treatment. Her symptoms were rare and it could be due to an infection triggered by the unusual heat wave in Goa that year. She had overheard the doctors telling Bijoy the previous night that her chances of survival were bleak.
Their dream project was collapsing. It was the first thought that came to her as she woke up the next day. Enzo was gone. And, soon, this bedroom, the house, the tiny garden outside with its gnarled old red hibiscus and the half-grown mango tree they had planted together, all those would be gone as well. It was the strangest feeling ever. The fear of loss affected her more than the fever.
The next day, the local newspaper's first page right corner read:
A 75 year old lady dies an unnatural death in Morjim due to a rare infection. Only autopsy can throw light upon the exact cause of the infection. The government urges everyone to take ample precautions before moving out in the heat.
When the autopsy team reached Susan’s house to take her body to the hospital, they found a note by her bedside table. It was addressed to Lorenzo:
I have tried hard to manage everything on my own and if by any chance I falter, please take over and save our home. A home that we built together.
Later, the police also found the house ownership agreement with Lorenzo's name and signature on it. Susan had obtained his signature secretly while he was signing the house renovation agreement contract.