She drew the last puff before stubbing the cigarette out with the toe of her shoe. Outside, the sky was overcast. She smiled lazily. Pulling a new one out from the pack, she lit it and wondered on her first puff whom the night would bring. Not a politician, she hoped. They were not noted for sophistication, though things were changing slowly. The agency usually ensured that the man was decent… and she had over time stopped bothering with names. They were typically wealthy men who trusted the agency to pick an educated woman who would be their intellectual equal as well, not just a call girl. Perhaps this one would be a man from the armed forces. They knew to how to treat their women. The smile widened as she let her mind run over the possibilities.
She hadn’t played the guessing game in years… In the very first year she’d started, just to keep her mind blank. For lack of something better to do, she looked around. The room somehow seemed to command respect. Her eyes traversed the length and breadth of the room, noting every decadent detail of its luxury- the delicate crystal which she knew would have cost a fortune, the deliberately striking combination of luxurious dark wood and dulled paneling – and she whistled a little. He certainly lived in style. Once more, she wondered who he was. The cushion welcomed her burden and she sank in. Breathing in the smoke, she closed her eyes, her neck raised…
When the door swung open, she sat up, a little startled and annoyed that she’d allowed herself to doze off when on call. Quickly, she touched her hair and smoothed her skirt to make sure she was none the worse for the wear from the quick nap. Then she slowly turned, an elegant swivel designed to impress the male who had walked in and then manufactured a stunning smile. The smile froze abruptly as she stared at him, then slowly faded.
He grinned, clearly a tad shy. “Hi.”
She smiled back after the initial disconcert. “Hi, there.”
“Sit down, please”, he invited and then with some difficulty managed to get himself into the high seat opposite her.
She perched at the edge of the couch and examined him with interest. Of all the clients she’d ever had in a fairly longish career, if you will, he must easily be the youngest. The boy had a crop of unruly hair and when he smiled, displayed more gaps than teeth. She dimpled.
“How old are you, honey?”
“Six.” He lisped, then abruptly shut his mouth when he noticed where she was looking. “My tooth fell off. Pinni and I were playing cricket”, he explained, hands moving all over the place in an effort to make her understand. “And then Pinni hit a sixer – and then bidddddishkaoowww!!!” His eyes were wide now. “It bleeded”, he exclaimed, proud at the memory of his moment of glory.
It was getting harder not to smile now. “What’s your name?”
“Karthik. Whassyourname?” It came out as one quick word.
“Anisha”, she decided and watched him frown as he counted, ticking off fingers. “What happened?”
“You’re the seventh… no, eighth.” The math done, he looked up.
She smiled. “Eighth what?”
“Eighth lady friend this year”, he replied, looking solemn. “After Charlize and Alisha and the lady with the Chinese name. Daddy has lotsof lady friends. They come and stay for a few days and go away. Some of them’re nice. I wish they’d stay.” A wistful look now. “I’m not supposed to talk to them, but sometimes I talk. They always go away in one week. Always. Since I was four.” His eyes glazed slightly, a faraway look in them.
“What happened before that?” she asked, intrigued.
“Mummy was there”, he said simply. “Shall I tell you about mummy?” He swung his legs this way and that awkwardly, waiting for her reply and her heart constricted. God, the child was as lonely as could be… wanting to talk to someone, anyone.
“I want to know everything about your mummy, Karthik,” she declared, pushing her couch closer. “Did she look nice?” and was startled when he abruptly got down and went running. As the door banged shut behind him, she stared into a floral arrangement on water at one corner of the room. What had she said or done?
Less than twenty seconds later, he was back, slightly out of breath, carrying something in an envelope. Three photos. He handed them to her, beaming. A picture of a family- a very handsome man with his arms around Karthik’s waist and a laughing woman with lovely eyes and long brown hair. The boy looked about three years old in the picture. “That’s mommy”, he said unnecessarily, pointing to the woman. “She died off.” She looked up at his expression then. There was love, sadness and worst- an understanding that his mommy would not come back, an understanding that a six year old should not have had. It failed to dull the pain in the boy’s eyes. She put out a hand and ruffled his hair. It was soft and downy. He sat down promptly beside her, legs crossed and they studied the next photo, a close up of the woman; and then the third – mother and child, heads together, engrossed in a book.
When she had finished admiring the photos, he took them back and carefully put them back in the old envelope, one after another, mouth pursed as he did so. Startled, she realised that there were tears in her eyes. She blinked them back a little angrily – it was silly to cry – she had no idea who the child even was, she would probably never see his father after that night.
“Mommy was like a princess”, he exclaimed suddenly, pulling her out of a reverie. “She called me Ubby. I was fat.” Giggles. “We went to Disneyland and I took pictures with Mickey. She made little little sandwiches for me.” The sentences came out in no particular order, as if they’d been crammed into a box tightly and let loose all of a sudden. His eyes shone. “Mommy loved blue. She had a blue tee shirt and I had one too. Daddy too. Then we took lotsof pictures. Her room is at the end here”, he pointed at the corridor beyond the half-open door. “It’s locked. Daddy locked it up.”
“What happened to mommy?” she asked gently.
“She died. The car hit a tree.” The words tumbled out. “Daddy said it was because of she was angry with him and me. He told Mani uncle. I heard him. So she drove in the car and died.” He was looking at the floor now, his lower lip wobbling.
“Oh, honey.” She opened her arms wide and he looked up at them, her and then fell into her arms. She felt the sobs start, rack the little body and she cursed the carelessness of a father who would let a child hear such things. Letting the boy cry, she cradled him, absently rubbing his back as she stared at nothing, her mind running over her own childhood, her life, a hundred unrelated things. From nowhere, she wondered if she would ever have a child. She’d never seriously considered marriage or children. Her profession didn’t include them. Then again, she’d made enough to quit and live well for fifteen years or so if she were careful. Still, the thought of motherhood had never entered her head until today. Perhaps adoption… She shook her head. Too much. Too many thoughts all of a sudden.
He sniffled and wriggled a bit and she pulled back, but he buried himself further into her arms. She snuggled him deeper. His muffled voice asked, “What time is it?”
She checked her watch. “Seven thirty five.”
He sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. “Daddy’ll come now. He comes home at seven thirty.”
Pulling out of her hug, he stood in front of her, his hand in hers, eyes puffy, nose reddened, hands clutching the slightly soggy envelope and smiled. The smile brought out a dimple on his left cheek. A great wave of emotion threatened to engulf her. Before she could do or say anything, the sound of car tyres crunching the gravel made themselves heard. Woman and child turned towards the door. The boy tugged his hand out of hers and ran out, pausing to give her a last, long look from the doorway.
“Bye”, he whispered, and then ran down the hallway. She twisted and leaned over, ignoring the sudden pain in her side and watched as he entered a side room and peeped around it in the direction of approaching footsteps. Then the little mop of hair disappeared and the door shut extra quietly.
She heaved a deep breath.
Then she straightened to face the man who would enter any second now, calling upon years of expertise and experience to clear her head. She leaned back into the chair and crossed her legs, so the shadow of the lamp gently lit one side of her face.
A second later, a man entered.
Head tilted, she smiled and held out a hand to him. “Anisha….”