By Brenda Coutinho
Nancy plucked the pearl white mogra and placed it gently into the loop of a thin braid of flowers. A whiff of scented breeze ruffled her tresses. Dew drops rolled and played a balancing game on leaf-tops; as a pale brown spider was engrossed in weaving a trap for its unsuspecting victims. Nancy knotted the loose ends of the braid and walked into the house; placed the garland around the framed image of Perpetual Succour. It was a birthday gift from her godmother. She then adjusted her frock, picked up the empty bucket and walked briskly to neighbouring homes to collect the kitchen wet waste to be delivered to the nearby piggery. Nancy smiled as Manuel, the owner of the piggery paid her ten rupees for her month’s services. Back home, Nancy had a quick wash, changed into her school uniform and stared hard at the currency note in her delicate palms. She straightened the note carefully, not to damage it, stood on her toes and dropped it into the old ceramic tea-pot on the top-most shelf in the kitchen. Mai had labelled the tea-pot ‘Educação’.
‘I am sure it’s close to a hundred now’ mulled Nancy. It was a fund that she and her mother, Rosemary, had started. Every time they sacrificed and did not spend money, it would go into the tea-pot. Suddenly, there was a knock, “Nancy, Nancy”… It was her mother at the door.
Nancy woke up with a start ... groped in the darkness and switched the bed side lamp on. Was mai trying to tell her something? This is the third consecutive night that she had appeared in her dream. Everything was so real, just like old times! She checked the time, it was 4.a.m. Patrick was sleeping blissfully beside her. Of late, he had been behaving like a child. He had stopped worrying about the world. All that he demanded nowadays was that his meals be served on time, and his diapers changed at regular intervals. It was a massive stroke that had put a permanent halt to his energetic lifestyle. Nancy turned and tossed in her bed until sun rays lit up the glass window panes. “Pat, weekly shopping today ... c’mon, time to wake up.”
“No Nancy, not today ... I despise the traffic in Margao on Saturdays ... you go ahead, I’ll be fine. I’ll watch T.V, and I have a couple of emails to reply to”.
“Pat, no excuses, we have to go. Remember what Dr. Oliver said? You need exercise. Blood circulation is important you see? You could check your emails later; you have the whole day to yourself. And, you know Pat; I saw mai in my dream, yup ... third time. The night before, I saw mai and me checking out the sardines on display at the tinto. From a distance, mai told me which lot was the freshest from the less expensive one; and then we bought half of those sardines. Those were the days! I often remember the saree aunty who used to sell fish at the tinto, she used to be quite fond of me,” Nancy chuckled. “She always threw a crab … and sometimes a prawn or two into our heap of fish. But that tall man at the grocery shop was a jerk ... he would always stare at mai and take more time than required to pack the groceries.”
Rosemary had been a good-looking, tall and hardworking young widow, who had lost her husband to liver cirrhosis. She cleaned floors, washed clothes, and swept the yards of the neighbouring households to earn a living, a lady known for her impeccable integrity, who accepted her fate as God’s will. Even on her death bed, she would say, “You know Nancy, tough times never last, but tough people do.”
Nancy, who was 73 years old was two years younger to her husband, Patrick. Her tryst with adversities had moulded her into a strong-willed woman. It had been fifteen years and three months that Patrick had come to be dependent on a wheelchair. He simply hated it. There were times when he would just weep aloud for being a nuisance to his wife.
Nancy dressed up Patrick, and handed him the snack box and water bottle. She then opened her shoe rack, and picked up a pair of ballerinas that matched with her outfit. She had painted her nails afresh with pastel enamel the previous night.
‘Mai, thank you for making me who I am today, I know to count my blessings.’ She smiled at herself in the huge oval mirror that stood in her drawing room, took her sling bag, hung the empty shopping bag on the arm of the wheel chair and steered Patrick towards the car as their driver manoeuvred it into the driveway.
Once inside the supermarket, as usual, Patrick sat in one corner and watched his wife fill the trolley with bread, meat, cheese and other groceries. She smiled happily at other customers and made small talk with acquaintances. Only if wealth could buy health, contemplated Patrick.
Back home, Nancy was a busy bee. “Elizabeth called up to say that she is dropping by in the evening with her grandchildren,” she informed Patrick as she stood on a high stool and changed the curtains to bright summer colours. The vase on the centre table looked refreshing with fresh pink dahlias from the garden. “I have baked a cake, Elizabeth loves home baked cake.”
“When did you get the time to bake a cake Nancy?”
“Oh, I did it after our shopping spree.”
Nancy gave Pat an early bath after his siesta, dressed him up in clean casuals and gave him his favourite lemon tea. She wore a floral evening dress. Just then Elizabeth arrived with her two grandsons. Elizabeth was a close friend and an ex-colleague at the bank where they had worked together until Pat was partially paralysed.
Nancy gave the boys a quick hug and led them to the kids’ room. She had a play room for kids who visited her. The boys were thrilled at the sight ... curtains with teddy bear prints were serenading with the breeze; there were wooden toy trains, wax moulds, painting material, toy dinosaurs and stacks of story books. Now that the boys were duly engaged in the play room, Elizabeth, Nancy and Pat chatted animatedly; reminiscing old times as soothing soft instrumental music flowed in the background.
“Patrick, I must say that you look much better now. Nancy must be really taking good care of you.”
“You know Elizabeth, if I am alive today; it is because of my wife and God’s will ... I often wonder how she is so energetic. Nancy is never bitter about the upheavals in life ... she indeed celebrates life and I think that’s what keeps us going till today. The doctor’s appointments, bills, bank work, household chores ... she should be going crazy with an invalid partner around, but never have I heard her lament about her fate.”
After a long day, Nancy gave Pat his medication after dinner and changed his diapers. She helped him wear his pyjamas and get into bed, but couldn’t stop thinking: “Mai normally appears in my dreams when she wants me to be alert about something ... what could it be?” She pondered on this as she did the dishes. “Could it be the slight tightening in my chest ... no, no ... God, no, please. Hope it’s not my heart ...” It was half past ten when she finally hit the bed. She heard Pat murmuring something in his sleep. As usual, counting the beads on the rosary, she began to pray and was soon in deep slumber.
A sudden thud shattered Nancy’s sleep. “Am I in a dream? No ... Was that thunder? ... Robbers?’
Nancy woke up with a start. She was too scared to move ... pin drop silence, she could hear her own heart beat, and then some rustling on the floor. Her legs felt heavy with fright. She tried to wake Pat up ... her hand slowly feeling his side of the bed ... it was vacant! Nancy groped in the dark. “Where could he have gone? Washroom? No ... he would need help.” Suddenly, she switched the bedside light on and jumped out of bed ... and in that brief moment, her heart sank ... Patrick was lying on the floor.
She screamed, “Pat ... Pat.”
She knelt down beside him, caressed his face, he was warm but motionless. She grabbed the water jug from the table and sprinkled water on his face ... no reaction ... she thumped hard on his chest with bare hands ... finally, she took her cell phone and tried to call up Dr. Oliver frantically, but she found herself fumbling.
“Nancy, please help me sit up, don’t panic ... I am alright...” said Pat’s feeble voice.
“I’ll call the neighbours ... no, Dr. Oliver...” mumbled Nancy.
“Nancy, I am alright ... It was a dream, good old times ... I guess ... I turned in my sleep and landed here.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call Dr. Oliver?”
“Hundred and ten percent.” Pat tried to smile in order to console Nancy. Summoning all her strength, an overwhelmed Nancy lifted her beloved in her arms, kissed his forehead, and tucked him in bed.
As the sun rose, Nancy woke up still feeling a tightening sensation in her chest. She turned and looked at Pat for a long time. “Pat, wake up, can you hear me Pat … wake up.” Patrick simply continued sleeping blissfully …
Brenda Coutinho was born and brought up in a small village called Sinquetim in South Goa, India. By profession, she is a lecturer in English. She is the author of A Matter of Time (Goa 1556; 2013) which can be purchased here.