By Yvonne Vaz Ezdani
“My shadow is my silent slave. It goes everywhere with me’
“That’s nonsense. Why does it disappear in the dark?’
“Because it’s afraid of the dark. So, it hides in my pocket”
‘If it’s your slave you should order it to come out of your pocket.”
Braggart brother and little sister were having this debate and it seemed the girl was the smarter of the two. I wanted to hear more but it would look suspicious if a stranger was hovering around two little kids on crowded Baga beach.
I smiled and walked on.
The topic of shadows always reminded me of my childhood friend Tony. When he was in primary school Tony would sometimes punch or kick friends who teased him because he was short, shorter than the rest of his classmates. Scolding, punishment, no corrective measures worked to stop Tony from lashing out. Later I learned that he had impulse control disorder and he was told to divert or channel his strong emotions in some other way so that he did not hurt anyone physically. Someone must have suggested that Tony should kick or stomp the shadows of people he wanted to hit out at. Tony used to chase the person who angered him on the playground and stamp his shadow with such vengeance that it used to frighten some of the boys. Many times, he spat on the shadow and this somehow seemed like a grave insult.
But Tony was my favourite friend. Except for the few times he got irritated or mad at someone he was friendly and caring and Tony and I shared many happy childhood memories. He was at the top of the Arts and Craft class and often helped me with drawings or other art assignments.
I was the quiet passive type that didn’t get into any fights, but I would glare at anyone who teased Tony and sometimes even yell out “Stop it!”. A teacher once said that Tony had an army at his back with me as a friend. That pleased me no end although I wasn’t sure how weak me could make Tony strong.
For some reason I vividly recalled one conversation I had with Tony.
“Tony, I can understand you kicking other boy’s shadows. These same boys irritate me too. But I sometimes see you stamping your own shadow. That bothers me,” I remarked.
“I hate myself sometimes,” Tony said, then ran off to play.
I understood that he did not want the discussion to continue.
Another thing that made me feel uneasy about my friend was his family. They lived not far from our house and young as I was, I could see that they were poor and struggling and Tony with his creative nature seemed out of place in the family. He once told me that his family made fun of him or scolded him for spending so much time sketching in one corner of the house. My mother used to gift Tony colour pencils and sketch books. She must have seen the lack in Tony’s life.
Boys stopped teasing Tony in middle school. He had grown taller anyway. He was more popular too and I was proud that I was still his best buddy.
I often wondered how Tony was now. About ten years ago I had moved to a new neighbourhood and we had not kept in touch. Then a mutual friend gave me the news that Tony was in trouble with the law because he had been caught shoplifting in a supermarket. He had lost his job and had a court case pending against him. This friend, like me, felt it could have been a misunderstanding.
I felt sorry for Tony and instead of condemning him, decided to find out his address and visit him.
We met a few days later. I felt a bit awkward and didn’t know how the conversation would go.
“Hi old friend!” Tony greeted me with a warm handshake putting me immediately at ease.
“I think of you often Paulo. You were always a good friend. I don’t think I ever kicked your shadow, huh?”
Tony meant it as a joke but there was a sadness in his eyes.
“I was always on my best behavior around you just to protect my shadow.” I laughed.
“Was I really a scary person?” Tony asked.
“Not at all. A lot of our classmates really liked you. As for me, I felt you were a great friend especially when you shared the tasty rotis your mum packed for your tiffin,” I joked.
“And I used to think that rich boys like you preferred bread, butter and cheese. I couldn’t understand why you so readily exchanged your sandwich for my roti and aloo.” Tony too was laughing now.
“I really liked your Mum’s cooking and so many times I hinted that I would like to be invited over to your house for lunch, but you never did.”
“I was ashamed of my family, not so much because they were poor, but they were also not cultured and often spoke roughly to me and my sister. They would make fun of my attempts at drawing and painting and insult me because I was different from them.”
The jovial mood we had shared a few moments ago disappeared.
“Thank God that you were different.” I smiled and tried to make light of Tony’s words, but he looked sad.
“Being different has cost me Paulo. You don’t know how often I’ve had to wrestle with my shadows.”
I did not know how to respond to that and decided to be just a friend who listens
After a few moments, Tony said,” You understand and accept me, Paulo, despite my bad behavior so I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’m getting help from a psychologist now. The therapy seems to be working and I feel stronger inside, but I still have a long way to go.”
“I’m so glad to hear that, Tony”.
I wanted to ask him more about his problems but decided not to probe. The little psychology that I knew would not help him. Instead, I offered him friendship.
“My aunt has a holiday cottage by the sea in Candolim and she gives me the keys whenever I want to go there. I had planned to go this weekend. It would be fun if you came with me.”
Tony was touched by my invitation and replied in a warm soft tone.
“That would be so good, Paulo. I could spend time with you and go swimming in the sea, something I haven’t done in a long time.”
“OK. So, it’s settled then. I’ll pick you up in my car Friday evening and we’ll return early Monday morning. We bachelors don’t need to ask anyone’s permission, do we?”
Tony smiled. “I’ll look forward to the weekend. Thanks Paulo.”
Tony and I did have fun: chatting, swimming and playing beach volleyball with a group of other boys, and of course enjoying seafood in the nearby shacks. We spent the nights playing cards, having a few drinks and laughing a lot. I hoped Tony would confide in me about some of his problems, but it did not happen. He was relaxed and happy, and I was glad about that.
The following weekend Aunty Marie called me up.
“Paulo, did you shift the small alarm clock from the bedroom to some other place? I was also wondering about the shot glasses, the ones your uncle brought from Australia. Because there were only four there.”
Tony came to my mind immediately. Was he a kleptomaniac? I felt guilty for suspecting that my friend might be a thief.
I asked Aunty Marie, “Have you looked around? I saw the clock in its usual place the night before we left and I remember thinking how you found little exquisite pieces for your houses. We never used the shot glasses. You may have put them away someplace, Aunty.”
Deep down, I knew that Aunty Marie was a meticulous housekeeper. The nagging thought that Tony had stolen the missing objects came often to my mind during the next few days. My mind raced back and forth from ‘no it can’t be’ to ‘maybe.’ No one else had gone to the beach house after we left.
I searched the internet for information on kleptomaniacs and learnt many things, among them the fact that the act of stealing was not pre-planned or done in malice. Instead, it was just failure to resist the impulse to steal, an impulse which kept building up and became unbearable until they took the object. More often it was something they did not need. After stealing the object they would feel guilty.
I wanted to make excuses for my friend and wondered what lurked in the dark cavities of Tony’s mind. Was he hiding some anger, rage, or sadness? Or was it that his creative impulse got repressed because his unimaginative family made fun of him?
Tony called me a few days later.
“I need a job, Paulo. If you know of something suitable please let me know. You are a popular, respected guy. Your recommendation will carry a lot of weight.”
I made no commitments. I so wanted to help Tony but on the other hand, how could I recommend a suspected thief for any job?
The dilemma disturbed my peace of mind for the next few days.
I decided to confront Tony and hoped to get a better understanding of the situation.
I went to meet him as soon as I was able to. Tony looked a bit guilty when I told him about the articles that were missing from the beach house.
“Do you think I stole the clock and glasses?” Tony asked in a flat tone.
He seemed neither defensive nor apologetic.
“I don’t know what happened to those things, Tony. I am not accusing you but I have heard that you have irresistible urges to take things that don’t belong to you. I am still your friend and you can be honest with me. I’ll try to understand and accept whatever you tell me.”
Tony sat looking at the floor, without saying a word. I too sat quietly, to give him some time, but the silence became uncomfortable. I remembered reading, that for some reason most kleptomaniacs did not admit their mental disorder. It was ok if Tony did not want to discuss his mental problems but at least he should feel some remorse for taking my aunt’s things.
Why can’t he say something to make me feel better? Why doesn’t he trust me enough to open up to me? Why is he taking advantage of my friendship which has been unconditional so far? My thoughts were taking a new direction. I’m done with trying to understand him I decided.
“I’m fed up of trying to help you, Tony. You don’t know how to treat a friend. You don’t deserve a friend!”
Hurt and anger poured out in my voice and Tony still said nothing.
‘Can’t he say “sorry” if nothing else?’ I thought.
I seldom lost my temper but now I shouted, “You should be in jail!”
If Tony felt anything he did not show it.
“I can give you the silent treatment too? This is the last time I will ever speak to you,”
I yelled as I slammed the door and left.
I got drunk that night and the next. Then I decided that it was stupid of me to care so much about Tony when I had so many other friends. I had to let go of this relationship
About a month later I got a call from the local hospital. Tony had been hit by a car and seriously injured. He had asked for a Paulo before he died and the nurse had found my phone number in his pocket book. They did not know who else to call to identify the body.
My feelings alternated between shock and an underlying guilt and shame for deserting my friend. It was too late to tell Tony that I regretted what I had said, that all I wanted was to understand and was frustrated because I couldn’t.
A deep feeling of grief and helplessness came over me as I looked at the bruised body of my old friend.
I contacted Tony’s family and some friends, and together we arranged the funeral service. One of Tony’s neighbours said he had seemed depressed the day before the accident. The driver of the car that ran over Tony said he just walked onto the road suddenly without warning and it gave him no time to hit the brakes.
As I carried Tony’s coffin into the cemetery my heart was heavy with unshed tears, but as we reached the freshly dug grave I felt a weight lifted off my mind and a strange sense of relief. It took me a few moments to understand why. The grave was under a leafy tree and Tony would be laid to rest in its shade.
“No more shadows for you Tony. Rest in peace in the shade my friend,” my heart whispered.
The banner image is courtesy of author Mona Dash.
Yvonne Vaz Ezdani lives part of the year in Goa and the rest of the time in Brisbane, Australia. She grew up in Burma/Myanmar and has many memories of the beautiful land. She has authored two books, Songs of the Survivors (Goa1556, 2007) and New Songs of the Survivors (Speaking Tiger, 2015). After fulfilling careers as a teacher and later as a school counsellor, she now devotes her time to writing and taking care of her grandchildren. She still finds time to nourish her soul with reading, music, and gardening.