Celine walked slowly from the lawyer’s office in Dadar. There was a sense of relief but the heart was still heavy. She wondered how she had managed to go through the choppy sea of life in the past three years. She along with her two children, Amy and Paul could now look forward to some better quality of life.
Her eyes were moist as she climbed the stairs of the local train station. She held her bag containing all the documents tightly. Tomorrow she would sort them out and get them photocopied. All the formalities of registration and stamp duty for her small little flat in Kalina were now complete. She got into a slow train for Andheri to avoid the heavy rush and sank into the nearest seat. At Santa Cruz, she hired an auto rickshaw and proceeded towards her little chawl tenement. On seeing her kids waiting she could not hide the lump in her throat and she let the tears run down. It had been a battle for survival. The next morning she had said a silent prayer. It was only this faith that had kept her body and soul together.
For one long year Anthony, her husband, had battled with cancer. Celine had left her modest job as an administrative assistant at Andheri to devote full time and attention to her dying companion. Anthony had been a very supportive person and bore the illness patiently. Most of their savings had been wiped out. Celine’s boss had been kind too and arranged to give her salary in advance and also offered to take her back in her old job. That was a relief. Celine took some tuitions at home to add a few rupees to the waning kitty. Her kids too had been patient and understanding. Last year, soon after Anthony’s demise, there was a real heavenly boon. His uncle who was childless and lived in Goa had left him a few lakhs of rupees. Celine took her two kids with her to sort out the legal matters in Goa and returned to her modest room. The neighbour in the chawl was keen on buying her room so that she could have a bigger residence. After enquiring with a few local elders she found out that she could buy a room and a kitchen flat in the area in an old building and still have about 50,000 rupees in the bank. Her colleagues had got her in touch with their lawyer and at a nominal fee, he had helped out with the formalities. Next week, she would move into the little house which she had just got white washed. A few pieces of furniture she would take with her. She would not have to bother about changing the school for her kids. God, she thought, had been very understanding on one hand but the spark of her life was taken away. She would start a new life and also resume her job. Luckily, the legacy of Anthony’s uncle had saved her from borrowing.
A few old pals came to the first floor apartment when the priest from the parish came to bless her new home. After performing the rituals, the guests left with their packets of snacks. Celine sank into a cane chair looking at the blank wall in front. The kids made new friends in the building compound. The family was now settling down comfortably and Celine was back to her work.
Two months passed and one night Celine got up at night to go to the washroom. She tripped over a small toy. “Paul will always be untidy- never keeps his toys in the basket in the corner,” she muttered. She picked the little mechanical car and put it in the basket. She did not want to fall down in the middle of the night and be hurt. Two days passed and she found a couple of toys on the floor. Paul has to be pulled up, she thought. “He’d break my bones like this,” she said to herself. . She bent down to pick up the red toy and she felt that it was being pulled the other way. What on earth was this? Some magnet or some mischief? She managed to put the toys with some effort into the cane basket and went back to her bed wondering why the toys were not being easily picked up. She turned her side and slept.
The following weekend, she called her son and warned him not to throw toys on the floor. Next time she sees something like this, she would punish him. She also took up the task of clearing a cupboard in the passage and dumping the basket there at night and latching the panel. For some days, there were no toys on the floor. At times she would lose her temper but then she realized that her two kids were the only ray of hope. She had to be both father and mother to them. Every Sunday morning the family went to church and mingled with their old friends. Paul and Amy had both adjusted to their new abode and made new friends. There was no room for complaints. She felt the void left by Anthony more on holidays when she was left to be with her children and entertain them and play with them.
During summer holidays, the children were left at home and Celine had hired a domestic help. That was the only solution for the kids to be taken care of while she was away at work.. One evening, when Celine returned home late due to the heavy load of work at her office, she asked the maid to stay back. The maid agreed. After dinner, they sat before their old TV set to watch some programmes. It was well past 11pm when they suddenly heard some din. They almost jumped out of their skins. Celine got up and so did the maid and went towards the kitchen. From the passage shelf the entire toy basket had tumbled down and all the toys were strewn on the floor. Celine’s heart missed a beat. She took a deep breath and asked the maid to help her put them back. She lifted the basket and shoved into a corner in the kitchen. An uneasy feeling crept over her. How did the latch open? The basket was not so big that the shelf could not accommodate.
It was a long weekend in April when Dias aunty from the ground floor came up to chat with Celine. Dias was a lovable woman in her mid-seventies and people liked her for not being a gossip and also for her helpful and non-interfering nature. Celine treated her to a cup of tea and some pastries which she had got from the nearby bakery. Dias chatted about how she used to travel on a first class pass to Churchgate and how on completing twenty five years in that organization she had been presented with an HMT watch which she still used. “Those days, people valued good secretaries, today neither the bosses nor the secretaries are committed to honest work,” she remarked softly thinking deeply about something. Paul came with a mechanical top which he had bought the previous evening from the Bandra market. Celine suddenly was restless.
“Aunty,” Celine hesitated, “this flat belonged to an old gentleman before I bought it from him, didn’t it?”
“Yes. Mr. Sawant. A jolly fellow. He had an apartment in Malad where he lived with his son. This little place he had kept as an investment or something like that… may be for his daughter who was abroad. He never stayed here. Came occasionally to attend society meetings and pay the outgoings. The last I saw him was when he sold the flat to you. The gentleman that he was, came and wished good-bye to each and everyone,” Dias was lost in some thought again.
“Some more tea, aunty?” Celine asked.
“No dear. Won’t get sleep at night then,” retorted the lady.
“From whom did Sawant buy this flat? Well, I am not being nosy but the flat deed talks about having a previous owner also,” Celine broached the subject cautiously.
“Oh, that family was a wonderful one,” she reminisced, “Ashley was a handsome man and had a beautiful wife- Maria. Had two sons Andrew and Richard. Football enthusiasts-all of them! After Ashley’s father passed away, his mother was alone in Mangalore and so he sold the house to look after his father’s business of grocery or grains.. or something like that. After that they have not come to Bombay. Maria’s sister, Lily, stays in Kalina- you know just next to the municipal dispensary. Occasionally, I would meet her in the market. Now, I don’t go that far- but buy things from the local bhajiwala!”
Celine had got some information out of the old lady who was now getting a bit restless. “I must get going,” she said as she got up and straightened her printed dress. “Took a lot of your time but it was good to meet you. Must say you have kept your home very well! Drop by sometime.” With a certain air of finality she went to the door and loudly said ‘bye’ so that all in the house could hear and went down the stairs holding the flaky walls for support.
“Ashley, Maria, Andrew and Richard-hmm.. what could be the truth?” she wondered., “the local parish would have some inkling of Lily,” she told herself. The next morning she saw a dozen toys on the kitchen floor. A chill ran down her spine as she carefully picked them up again. Each time she scolded Paul, he had looked puzzled at her for her outbursts. That night, she took the rosary in her hand and then put it under her pillow. She left the passage light on.
Celine opened her eyes slightly to see the time and she noticed a small figure near the bed. Her scream got stuck in her throat and cold sweat broke out. The figure was of a male child –about 10 years old and had large eyes that seemed sad and imploring. Celine just froze and never batted an eyelid. After a few minutes which seemed like an hour the figure disappeared and Celine could gather herself and sit-up. “I must ask the priest to do something- there are means to get rid of spirits,” she thought to herself.
The following Sunday, she went to the church and waited after the service was over. Father D’Cruz waved out and signaled as if to say “all fine?” She waited till people around him had gone away. “Father, I have been very uneasy in this new house. May be you could come once more and bless our home with some holy water?” She fumbled. “Dear me. It takes time to settle after so much agony and trauma. Things will settle. Don’t you worry over that. Keep praying,” Father assured her. Till now the entity was seen only by her. What if it scares the kids? She shuddered at the thought.
The municipal dispensary was not very far. She took the kids home and asked them to be home and not go out till she returned. She walked towards the dispensary not knowing how she would locate Lily. In her mind, she thought of different excuses that she would give to justify the visit. She waited at a store and asked if there was any lady by the name Lily. “Surname?” the owner asked. The assistant came forward and asked, “Lily aunty who works in the convent school?” Celine nodded. It was a shot in the dark. The young lad stepped out of the shop and directed her. She thanked and walked with speed.
A well-groomed woman in her forties opened the door. She must have been really beautiful in her youth, thought Celine. “Mrs. Lily?” asked Celine.
“Yes,” answered the person obviously having a sore throat. “You want admission? I can’t help, sorry, sorry..” she almost closed the door. Celine said, “No, ma’m. Dias aunty talked about you and since I was near your house, I thought I would just tell you that I am now the owner of the flat in which your sister lived. Nothing in particular. I am a widow and have just moved in.. so I thought…..” Lily asked her to come in and pointed to the chair in the balcony. “Please don’t misunderstand, I work in the convent at Bandra and people usually come looking for me thinking I can get their kids admission in the school. So sorry, ” the explanation was terse. Celine briefly told about her job and how her family has quickly adjusted to the new house cautiously choosing her words.
‘Yes, it is a friendly society. Dias aunty in particular. Always cheerful. My sister went away to Mangalore,” Lily stopped at that. “How is Dias aunty? Haven’t met her since Maria went away. Do convey my regards to her,” Lily seemed to fade off.
Celine got up saying, “Didn’t want to trouble you on a Sunday morning. I have not seen you at the church either.”
“Since my work is at Bandra, I attend the mass there. Very rarely I come to the local church. Not very serious about religion..” she shrugged her shoulders. Celine smiled and went out She was angry at herself for taking the initiative to find this woman called Lily!
Back home, Celine thought of handling the situation in the best way possible. Each night she prayed loudly and both the kids were wondering why this ceremony had started. Each night she asked Paul to keep his toys in place. As days went by, Celine was getting used to the sudden appearance of a figure near her bed and sometimes toys thrown around on the floor. How long would this fear last, she wondered.
A few days later she met Lily at the market. Celine unsure of how the woman would greet her just gave a slight nod. Lily stopped to ask about her family and of course Dias aunty. “I must come and look up the old lady,” Lily said almost to herself. “May be before the school reopens?” she muttered. “
“Should I inform Dias aunty?” Celine made a polite talk.
“No. Knowing her she would start getting impatient about the visit. I’ll give her a bit of surprise,” Lily decided and walked off.
The woman really knows how to be impudent, thought Celine. Rightly enough, she spotted Lily in Dias’ apartment. Both the ladies were standing in the balcony and chatting. Dias waved out and Celine waved back. “Let me take a chance.” Celine felt and asked Lily, “Since you are here, do come over upstairs to see your sister’s old flat.” There was no answer. Celine didn’t expect one either. She went up the steps slowly trying to catch a word or two from the conversation below. Not much luck.
A soft knock on the door surprised Celine. Why was the doorbell not used? She saw though the peephole and spotted Lily! She took a deep breath and saying a prayer opened the door.
“Just thought why not accept your invitation?” said the visitor. Her eyes looked all over quickly. Celine pointed towards the drawing room. Lily sat at the small dining table turning her eyes taking in many details. Celine asked her, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No. No. Dias aunty has made up for all the lost time by stuffing me with a lot of things,” retorted Lily.
Celine sat in another chair but was silent.
Lily broke that silence by saying, “Since I was here, I thought I would see aunty. Nice of you to call me. It’s been so long since I came to this place…” she trailed off. A whiff of the past, thought Celine.
“Maria loved this place but she has adjusted well to Mangalore. There she is better off financially,” Lily was almost thinking aloud. She opened her purse, “Here I have the family photo,” Lily placed a colour snap on the dining table. Celine was dumbfounded. The little boy’s picture was the same as what she had been noticing. She quickly gathered herself. There was a little friendliness in Lily’s voice now. She ran her finger on each individual. “The elder boy Andrew- gentle loving and this brat is Richard. Drove both Maria and Ashley crazy… very fond of toys specially cars of all sizes and shapes. Didn’t want to go to Mangalore. Threw up a big scene here saying he just didn’t want to leave this place. Unfortunately, he died last year of a mysterious fever. Just in one day he was no more!” Lily suddenly noticed Celine’s ashen face. “Anything wrong?” Lily queried.
“I have gone through so much of trauma that news like this really saddens me,” lied Celine. “It must be really painful for your sister to have lost a child,” Celine tried to speak normally.
“Yes. She has not really come to terms with it, to tell you frankly. But strange are the ways of the world,” Lily muttered. Then she suddenly turned to Celine, “Oh. Please don’t give this news to aunty. This fact is not known by many. Dias aunty was very fond of Richard and the feeling was mutual. With her, he was the best behaved boy. Maria would leave him at her house and then go out. Aunty would be shocked if she knows about Richie not being there in this world. She feels when they come for a holiday, she would meet her little ‘Denise the Menace!”
Celine nodded. “I’ll keep it to myself. Rest assured.” Lily arose to leave when the kids returned after their play and started to bring their books out.
“Good you came in that day. I could make up my mind to step here after the tragedy. Moreover, I could face aunty withholding the news of Richie’s demise. Wish you luck, dear.” Lily left in a hurry.
Celine had seen the figure again that night- half imploring, half disappointed. But she did not get scared. Keeping her eyes open, she murmured, “Richard dear, I know you love this place. You are just like my son,” she paused. “you are free to play with Paul’s toys as long as you want but don’t make a noise in the night. You may stay here as long as you wish..” tears rolled down her cheeks.