For Your Word Cravings; Short Story: The Young Bride
It was a wet morning. As I made a dash for dry cover, I noticed a little girl selling roses. It was unusual for an urchin to be spotted so close to the international airport early in the morning. She must have braved the weather to slip past the security guard unnoticed. For all her bravery, however, she now looked nervous. Not to mention very cold and wet. On principle, I do not buy merchandise from roadside hawkers and never from children – forced to eke out a living from selling small items.
But this morning, there was something about that brave little girl that made me change direction. I rushed to her. She raised the bunch of red roses to me hopefully, “Beautiful flowers, memsaab. Fifty rupees only for two dozen. Very good price.” I knew I could bargain. I also knew that the flowers were fresh and at a florist they would cost me upward of `300. Without dwelling too much on the source of the flowers, I pulled myself, and her, out of our wet misery as I fished out a `50 note and grabbed the bunch.
By the time I entered the airport I was drenched. Fortunately, I was carrying a change of clothes in my overnighter. I was making a quick stop at Chandigarh, where my parents lived, before proceeding to Shimla the same evening for a business meeting. The travel plan had come up so suddenly that I hadn’t had the time to buy gifts for my parents.
As I settled deeper into my window seat, 34A, I gently caressed the rose petals. I was loath to toss them in the overhead bin. They looked so delicate. I anticipated the look on my mother’s face when I would present her the bunch. She loves roses. For as long as
I can remember, she is the only one I have gifted red roses to. I have, on occasion, gifted potted plants and flower bouquets to friends, but they would always be carnations, orchids, gerberas, lilys, even pink roses, but never red roses.
However, I could not recall when was the last time I gifted mom a rose – let alone a bunch of them. I had moved out of my parental home 10 years ago, and come to Mumbai to build a career. I had definitely not gifted her flowers in the last 10 years. Perhaps it was time I started sending her roses more often. I was lost in thought, savouring the moment the plane would touch down at Chandigarh and I will meet my parents again. It had been six months since I last saw them.
I realised that the lady next to me was fidgeting in her seat. I glanced at her with mild irritation. I confess I am not a good travel companion. I am one of those people who, once they have boarded the aeroplane, plug their ears with headphones and take them off only when the plane lands. Social niceties and irrelevant chit-chats are not my forte. Any attempt at familiarity from strangers, quite honestly, spooks me out, and I suspect my response is more hostile than friendly. However, this lady, in her early sixties, looked distinctly uncomfortable. Her face was wrinkled with concern and she had beads of sweat on her forehead.
“Are you all right?” I asked with concern, for the aircraft was nippy.
“Yes dear,” she smiled.
“You don’t look all right to me,” I said almost accusingly, as if daring her to lie again.
She laughed nervously, “I guess I am having one of those moments. It’s nothing, dear. Really! It will pass in a few minutes.”
I didn’t believe her.
I asked the air hostess to give a glass of cool water to her and watched the old lady closely as she sipped the water slowly.
Once she had dutifully finished the contents of the paper cup, she looked at me and smiled, “You know, you are a little scary.”
For a moment, I was taken aback and then we both burst into laughter.
“I know,” I confessed.
“I have often been accused of being too…”
“Concerned?” she offered kindly.
“Overwhelming,” I said with a self-deprecating smile.
She nodded and smiled at that, “I know what you mean. You remind me of my husband.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that comment. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to compliment me or insult me, so I kept silent. She continued, “He was a huge army man, who always did things his own way. I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to him to ask other people for their opinions. Once he took upon himself to care for you, what you wanted did not matter. I am not saying that it’s a bad trait but, well, it can get irritating at times. At any rate he did do a much better job of loving and caring than most, I guess.”
I listened to her in respectful silence. She had used the past tense while referring to her loving husband. It wasn’t my place to interrupt.
“Oh, I am so sorry, for going on and on about my husband,” she suddenly said, self-consciously.
“I don’t mind,” I replied sagely. “I don’t have to be anywhere else right now. No plane to catch.”
That made her smile. We were after all 35,000 ft above ground. I realised that I liked her. She had an easy, likeable aura about her.
“I… I miss my husband,” she confided.
“He was so loving and kind. Pardon me the cliche, but he could brighten up a room just by entering it. And he was so full of life and laughter. The life of every party. Had he been alive, tomorrow we would be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary. Well, I am glad that we at least had each other for 39 lovely years. Life has treated me well and I have little to complain about. My son didn’t want me to spend the day alone, with morbid thoughts for company, so he booked me on this morning’s flight. He thinks the change of scenery will do me good. His company transferred him to this city a month ago.”
“Chandigarh is beautiful,” I offered.
“Yes. Yes it is. I had first visited this city as a young bride and I am now returning to it after so many years, alone. I… I can’t help but feel a little sad and lost.”
She sniffed. “You must think me silly. This stupid old cow, feeling lost.”
I smiled at her with reassurance. Words seemed inadequate.
“And then,” she continued. “When I saw these lovely red roses in your hand, my world suddenly seemed to crumble all around me. I hadn’t realised until the moment I saw that beautiful bunch of flowers, how much I am missing my husband.
“I thought, I was strong. I thought, I was holding myself well. I am grateful for all that I have. And I don’t want to be ungrateful now, but I so miss my husband. Every anniversary morning he would greet me with a similar bunch of red roses, long-stemmed and hand-picked from the garden. He had green fingers and loved gardening. The man poured love into everything he did. He had so much love in him. And he gave it freely.”
She was sobbing softly into her pashmina shawl.
The pilot asked all passengers to secure their seat belts and prepare for landing. We sat in silence, the lady and I, each lost in our own thoughts.
As the plane taxied to a halt, she turned to me and smiled apologetically, “I am sorry for being such a wuss. You are a lovely girl. Thank you for listening. I think I feel better. Lighter.”
I still didn’t know what to say, however, as she gathered her purse and turned to leave, it was suddenly clear to me what I needed to do.
“I would like you to have these,” I said, as I extended the bunch of red roses towards her.
“Oh, no! No, I… I can’t take them. I am sure you have bought them for someone special, or they have been given to you by someone special. How inconsiderate of me to not even ask you how you came by them.”
“Now, that you mention it, I think I was meant it was them for you. Please do accept them. I am sure your husband would have loved you to have these.” I made a mental note to buy another bunch for my mother later in the day.
Her hand hesitated for a moment, lingering over the stems and then she took them gratefully. As her gaze met mine, we were both smiling with tears in our eyes.
“Thank you, child. Your kind gesture means a lot to me. More than you will ever know.”
I think I did, because it was so uncharacteristic of me to buy flowers from a roadside urchin on a rain- soaked morning. In that moment, I knew without a doubt, that these roses were meant only for her, and no one else. I had merely been a medium – a delivery person of sorts. Someone up there must have really wanted to send red roses to this woman.
My parents were waiting for me in the airport waiting lounge. I noticed my travel companion search the crowd for a familiar face. As she spotted a gentleman, presumably her son, her face lit up; and in that moment, if truth be told – she was a sight to behold. Dressed in a white suit, with the delicate pashmina draped around her shoulders, her pure white hair tied in a neat chignon, she looked angelic. The dappled morning light seemed to have erased her wrinkles and her face looked like smooth porcelain. Was it a visual illusion, a play of light, or did the roses actually seem brighter and redder? Words crept to mind, unbidden, ‘A young bride.’
I shook my head in self-derision. Imagine getting fanciful. I must need that coffee more than I realised.
After the joyful exchange of hugs and greetings were over, as I and my parents were leaving – my mother caught sight of the lady in white, holding a bunch of red roses and surrounded by a small army of loving friends, family and grandchildren.
“Lovely flowers,” she said as we walked out of the airport, hand in hand.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.
However, I could not recall when was the last time I gifted mom a rose – let alone a bunch of them. I had moved out of my parental home 10 years ago, and come to Mumbai to build a career.