Summer is not a pleasant season. Not in Bombay, not for the majority of its inhabitants.
Smiles wane, faces lengthen and shoulders droop at the thought of having to step out into the sun. Sweat feels like a constant and insufferable companion. Fans work overtime and those who own a cooler are regarded with kingly reverence, their acquaintance sought through neighbourly gestures. Flowers wilt the day they are left unattended in the window and bird baths come into view at a few benevolent balconies.
At one such balcony, in a residential colony in suburban Bombay, a figure appears at 5 o’ clock every evening with uncanny promptness. Water can in hand and dressed in a simple cotton dress—yellow, cream, sometimes blue with white flowers—it appears to be busy watering the plants or replenishing the bird bath. But if you were to look closely, you’d notice that it was, in fact, looking down at the swimming pool that sprawled some forty feet in the centre of the society.
The pool was a novelty and several passersby stopped to visit it upon hearing of it and every resident in that society had paid a steep price to procure that proximity to it, but Alice, for that was her name, had never fancied the pool for herself.
She had, no doubt, hoped that there might be such people in her house as might enjoy it by and by.
She saw these people swarm to the pool in little droves now, shrieking with delight, their shrill voices filling the air, bouncing off buildings and booming. They seemed to be the only people happy about the summer. When every other thing looked faint in the heat, these tiny people bloomed, thrived, and came alive. They brought the pool to life every evening between 5 and 7 o’ clock, creating ripples in its once still waters, waking the birds from the surrounding bushes and the elderly from their beds.
Alice thrilled at their sight. She soaked in the sound of their gleeful laughter as their tiny bodies touched the cool water and their continuous chatter as they debated and argued about everything and nothing in particular. Later, she might go down with a book and pretend to read as she sat on one of the three benches around the pool, and smile at their shenanigans.
She smiled at that moment, recalling an absurd water fight she’d witnessed only last week. Three-year-old Aarya had squirted her water gun in her adversary’s face who, hoisted on the shoulders of a teenager, had been caught off guard and toppled backwards, taking the boy with him. The group, stunned for a second, had burst into peals of laughter at the sight of both of them emerging shocked and sloppy haired. Alice had had tears in her eyes. Not the kind she had when she lay in bed awake and feeling alone; no, the other kind, the happy kind. Yes, Alice felt closer to happiness when summer came and, the children with it.
Alice had looked for happiness for a long time.
Every morning, for five years, Alice had prayed to a picture of Baby Jesus that her nana had given to her on the day of her marriage to John.
‘Sweet Baby Jesus,’ Alice would pray, ‘Make us happy’, and she would rest her hand on her belly, her face wistful. John would call her around this time and she would go to him with his tea.
She didn’t do either anymore, take him his tea or pray. He made his tea himself. She sat opposite him as he read the paper and drained his cup. Eventually, he’d fold the paper, get up, pick up his briefcase, bid her goodbye and walk out the front door. She’d sometimes mumble ‘Okay’, but that was it.
That was it.
That, was their marriage, she mused as she watered the last of her plants, her eyes stealing glances at what was going on below. She stopped what she was doing and stood cradling the can in her arms. It hadn’t always been this way. She sighed, put the can down and leaned against the railing. There had been love once, and togetherness and, and…hope. Yes, for a long time, hope. Until something had snapped. Perhaps one of them had. Alice couldn’t remember which one of them had gone first, broken like an elastic band stretched too far. All she remembered was that once that had happened, there had been no fixing anything. So they’d left things as they were.
The room adjacent to theirs was still half painted, the toys they’d bought sat around the crib, uncomplaining in their plastic wrappers. No. Wait. Not the crib. The crib had been sent back to Ahmed’s shop to smoothen out those splinters. She and John were supposed to pick it up from his shop that weekend. She wondered what Ahmed must have done with the crib by now. Probably chopped the wood up to make something else. Alice shrugged. She couldn’t be bothered anymore. Perhaps John wasn’t either. She couldn’t tell. He wouldn’t show.
Except for that one time when he saw her looking at the children in the pool. She had caught the look on his face as he’d quickly turned away. It had broken her heart.
Alice gazed at the green that fringed the blue pool and the gloomy grey of the buildings beyond. She drew a deep breath, picked up her watering can and disappeared inside, closing the lovely French windows behind her.
Rakhee Pant is a writer and teacher. She writers short fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her work has been published in Reader’s Digest (India Edition), the NCPA’s monthly magazine On Stage, Reading Hour, and Narrow Road Literary Journal among others. She lives in Mumbai, India. To read more of her work or to connect with her, visit https://thevoicewithin620.wordpress.com/