Sumanth wondered if there was an statutory limit on the number of times one should ring a doorbell, and if there was, what their views were on breaking down said door on the grounds of pure Sunday Morning irritation.
He was on bell number five. And clearly Afreen was not responding. If she was merely ignoring that doorbell out of spite for him, then she was tougher than he had expected. The door bell was as nagging as a mother who needed a bride from his son, just because her neighbor had got one.
He could always say that he was worried. What if she had…died? Alone, in the apartment. A lot of people did that. It seemed the fashion. Especially in big apartments like this one.
He rang the bell again. Number six, each doorbell separated by two minutes.
He sighed, and turned around, catching a third dirty look from a passerby. Perhaps coming over wasn’t such a great idea. But Afreen had always invited him over, and told him that she didn’t give a damn to what the ‘jobless apartment people’ thought with their ‘towny teeny brains.” She got quite colourful in her descriptions after that, apartment gossip did that to her, especially after lunch hour at the office, when work just seemed suddenly too much.
Well, the place was beautiful, manicured gardens and fountains, and it was a respite from the high rises that seemed to have engulfed the once beautiful landscape. Afreen’s apartment was on the ground floor, her main door opening up to a lawn, with a view worth “dying for” even if she had to pay a “bomb for a rent” and have “douchebag” neighbours who ganged up against her. But then again, with Afreen, facts were almost always embellished, with her in the role of the hapless damsel, and the cruel world all around.
Well, he was going to ring the bell once more and go home. He couldn’t say he didn’t try to make amends. Besides, how long was she going to stay angry at her? Actually, the last thought wasn’t comforting. Afreen could hold a grudge for an irritatingly long period, even forgetting why the grudge was formed, but definitely acting on it at every opportunity provided.
He turned, his hand poised for a seventh bell, when it was toppled aside without ceremony by what seemed like a mini-typhoon masquerading as a hand. It was attached to man, a giant one, moustache, T-shirt half-tucked with a recent food stain splashed across. The man was now conducting what seemed like a painful orchestra with Afreen’s doorbell, with his fore-arms on the door serving as the beat, accompanied by loud shrieks of “Afi, Afi, Afi, OPEN!”
Five minutes of that and the door flung open, and there stood Afreen, her curly hair hurled all around like a dozen angry snakes poised to strike. Her gaze held them both, with all the reluctance of an interrupted Sunday morning sleep.
The giant man-person seemed to have taken this as cue to disappear inside, with both his hands flaying as if he was on fire, and additionally enjoying it. He seemed to run straight in the direction of the bedroom, with Afreen throwing a loud “Don’t bounce on the bed,” at him
“Is this a bad time?” Sumanth asked, his hands twiddling his thumbs, wishing suddenly he was back home, safely in his bed than facing the slits that were now Afreen’s eyes. And of course the man giant that had disappeared inside. Was that a boyfriend?
“You have more to say, is it?” she asked, her voice was cold, no trace of impending forgiveness.
“Don’t be like this, Afreen,” he pleaded, looking instinctively at his feet. He was terrible at this. At saying the right thing to any woman. He tried to force it out, but the apologies stayed stuck at the throat.
When he finally looked up, her eyes had registered a shift, as if hesitating, deciding, for what seemed like a long laborious pause. “Do you want some coffee?” she asked finally, turning, and trudging back in, the door open, thankfully un-slammed.
“Coffee would be nice”, he said, picking the newspaper off the doormat and stepped into the house, breathing in relief.
Afreen turned back at him quite suddenly, and whipped the newspaper off of him. “Well, then make it for yourself,” she hissed, and collapsed back on the bed, “And make mine with milk.”
He sighed, and stepped into the kitchen, wondering if this was some kind of ‘slave for my forgiveness’ deal. If so he wondered if it was worth it. The kitchen was a mess, dirty plates from the day before heaped in the sink, fruit flies abuzz, and a dirty saucepan on the stove. “This place stinks,” he shouted at her, opening the fridge for a packet of milk that he hoped wasn’t too ancient, “Do you want coffee for your boyfriend?”
That got a response from under the blankets, “You pervert, don’t call Avinash my boyfriend.. He’s just a child.”
“Doesn’t look it,” said Sumanth, competing with some ants for sugar. “How old is he, again?”
“Thirty, I think. But he has a heart of a child.”
“So what’s that noise?,” he said.
The bedroom, it seemed, was collapsing under a localized earthquake, and Afreen screamed, “AVINASH! NOT THE BED! I’m TELLING YOUR MOTHER!”
In a while, Sumanth managed to finished the treasure hunt for coffee powder and a clean saucepan, and managed two cups of coffee without Afreen’s help, though if this would make amends and buy his freedom, remained to be seen. More than anything, he needed Afreen’s help as a conduit to Pinky. He bought the cups of coffee on a tray into the hall, feeling very as vulnerable as a potential Indian bride that had much impressing to do to survive the world.
“So who is he?” asked Sumanth, “Avinash?”
A loud howl announced Avinash’s entry into the hall. The man crossed Sumanth, with what appeared to be a can of water, and proceeded, as if it was part of a daily routine, to water the plant that occupied the table top, and then, stamped off in the direction of the row of other plants, that stood against the wall almost trembling, like suspects at a police line up.
Afreen suddenly sat up. She screwed her face into a series of face and hand gestures that pointed to Avinash’s busy back and the coffee tray in Sumanth’s hand. It seemed like some kind of unspeakable danger, that she seemed to be hinting. “WHat are you doing?” he said, when Avinash let out a cackle, turning to notice him. “COFFEEE!” said Avinash, and sumanth felt his heart racing, as the boy-man bobbed towards him, excited by Sumanth suddenly and hurtling at top speed. Afreen in the meanwhile had pounced off the bed and seemed also approaching towards him, and he stood there mute and frozen as a black hole in the way of fast collapsing stars.
“NO COFFEE!” she shouted. But Avinash beat her to it, drank the liquid with little ceremony, tossed the cup onto the tray, way before Afreen could throw a curse in Sumanth’s direction. “Bad boy, Avinash!” said Afreen, but Avinash had disappeared, out of the apartment and into the outside world.
Afreen looked in the direction of the Avinash, like she’d unknowingly launched a missile into the world.
“We need to go after him!” she said, but headed instead in the direction of the balcony, and Sumanth followed confused.
“What’s happening?” said Sumanth, “He just had coffee!”
“And I told you not to give it to him! You just never listen to me! NEVER!” They stood in the balcony, staring at each other, Afreen’s body heaving laboriously.
“How was I supposed to understand what you are doing with your face?”
“STUPID! That’s what you are!”
“How am I stupid here?”
“Must have been obsessing over Pinky instead of thinking.”
“That’s unfair,” he said quietly, “I don’t even know this boy! You are just angry with me for nothing.”
“I am angry with you for a lot of things, Mister.”
“Listen, I am sorry about what happened at work. I shouldn’t have said those things about you and Deepak..”
“I don’t care…” said Afreen, “You went into the software core when I specifically told you not to? You just don’t care what I say. You don’t respect my opinion. So really, your apology is just fake words in the air.”
Sumanth felt the heat of it all, the morning wait, the dirty kitchen coffee, the confusing boy. That his apology didn’t matter was pissing him off now. He replied, his words treading on slippery ground, “I don’t understand how any of this a problem for you? Deepak wants you to fix it.” He looked at his hands again, because the memory of his boss’s final words returned like a sour taste in his mouth, “Just…don’t touch anything else,” Deepal had said, making no effort to dull the blow, “Afreen will handle things from here on.
It had been humiliating. After all those months of work preparing to be a team lead. Ruined. Afreen was kinda right. Obsessed with Pinky, that’s what he was. And for what? He looked at Afreen, who appeared intent on throttling someone to death, the clothesline from the looks of it, as her eyes were weirdly glued to. Her voice was the low growl, “Someone has taken my clothes again.”
“And…is that normal?” said Sumanth, tonelessly. A lot of things seemed normal around here.
Afreen’s look indicated that it clearly wasn’t. “At least three of my undergarments are missing. My…oh what the heck? They were bras. There I said it. Blush all you want.”
“I’m not blushing” said Sumanth, but hurriedly looked away all the same.
Afreen closed the balcony door, “Whoever it was, must have come through the balcony door, flicked it, and gone away.”
It sounded very Hardy Boys, but just with brassieres. Sumanth said, “Seems like a lot of trouble for a pair of undergarments. Who’d be crazy enough to do? And why do you leave your balcony door open? It could be a monkey or a pigeon.”
“There are no brassier loving monkeys here,” said Afreen scoffing, “Unless you mean Julie. She looks like one at least.”
“Is she the maid?” asked Sumanth.
“No! She’s rich as fuck, all set to marry some dandy from the US,” They had stepped out of the house and Afreen locked the front door, Heads some committee here. The noisy one…festival, I think. She herself is louder than a microphone. And I have a hunch she’s a klepto.”
They were walking through a boulevard, lined with trees and rows of three-storyed buildings. Children on their cycles, rollerblades, maids, seniors, the place was bustling. Sumanth said, “But isn’t this like a respectable apartment….I mean…who’d actually do something like that? Steal a neighbours laundry?”
There was a sharp bark, followed by screaming somewhere. Afreen had turned pale, her hands sweaty as she put her hand in his, signalling him to step aside. Even in the onslaught of mid-morning heat, her hands trembling.
“What’s happening, Afreen?” he said, as she moved him to a hiding place, in the shade of a building.
“Shhh…Its Avinash. I knew it. And that bitch.”
Avinash was there, rushing past, his giant arms flaying at the world and himself, as if he was being shrouded by bees that were all over him. He was running towards them, and Afreen stepped in his way, her hands trying to stop his dash, “Its OK, Avinash, its OK…” she tried to tell him, her voice in a strange sing-song, as if trying to soothe me. Sumanth caught the look on the boy-man’s face, his face had twisted into lines of pure agony, and the boy-man was crying now, loud gasps of child-like pain from the face of a man, loudly, “Afi! Afi!” unable to say what it was that was scaring him. Then they heard a second bark, and Avinash whipped away in a flash, a scream in his path. Afreen did not try to chase him, she stood rooted to the spot. And in the turn of a second, Sumanth found his knees quivering inches away from the dripping humongous canines of a German Shepherd, a giant breed that was more wolf than dog, and the air of a hunter, and a smaller terrier, that seemed overdosed on energy bars, and eyeing Sumanth’s leg as if it were one of his teething toys.
Thankfully there was a leash, though an unenthusiastic one desperate for rupture, he noted, and the leash holder, a veritable ice queen with her wolves on sledges, looking at them as if they were mere rocks blocking her path.
Afreen’s face had a twitch as she gazed across the dogs to the woman herself, “Jalaja…you are scaring the boy…” she said, the falter in her voice, he picked. She was scared of this woman, he realized.
“It is called discipline,” the woman said, looking at Sumanth more than Afreen, “A lot of people here seem to need it.”
Avinash in the meanwhile had scaled a tree. Sumanth worried the man might fall, but he looked like he had done it many times before. Like a monkey scaling a tree.
“My dogs mistake him for an animal.” said Jalaja, sighing, “And I can’t blame them can I.”
“I can report this you know…” said Afreen, more daring in her voice than in her face.
Jalaja waved her away as if to brush them away, bored by their presecne, “Be my guest”, her dogs pulling her in the direction of Avinash’s tree, “The committee will be calling you in anyway. Seeing that your behavior here continues to be questionable, as always. Until we meet again” Jalaja smiled, her lips widening oddly, her eyes lazing around refusing to join in the social occurrence of that face.