I cannot imagine what goes on in my wife’s head sometimes. She’s been as fearsome as a Viking all year through but now when the year is coming to a close she has turned into a shivering bundle of twisted nerves. It started the week right after Christmas. She’s been dropping things, forgetting important appointments, has been acting like a hag and stares at me quite strangely as if she’s never seen me before.
"It’s going to end very soon you know" she leaned over and whispered to me quite ominously, at breakfast this morning. Trying not to look scared I leaned back in my chair and buttered my toast with shaky fingers. "What’s going to end?" I retorted putting up a brave front. "The world stupid. The world is going to end very soon. Yes, definitely by end of 2007," her tone invited no arguments. "Well", I said rationally, "You’ve been saying that for the whole of last year and nothing happened." She glared at me. "Haven’t you noticed the signs?? It started in January this year. There’s just a few more scores to be settled and then it will be finished."
Crazy woman, I thought uncharitably as I got up hurriedly from the breakfast table and grabbed my sunglasses and keys prior to making a hasty exit from the front door. I was restless the whole day at the office cursing my wife for spoiling my otherwise pleasant disposition. I needed some sane company so instead of going home I headed straight for the newspaper vendors after work.
Francis had been selling newspapers for over twenty years now and nothing had changed about his little shop. You could hardly see him in between all the hanging magazines and tabloids but Francis himself missed nothing. His sharp eyes didn’t miss my approach either. We had been thick childhood friends and had even married on the same day, though in different places. We were very lucky that our wives got on like a house on fire and so we met often sometimes with and sometimes without their presence.
He muttered a good morning but the greeting lacked the usual warmth. "What’s up my friend?" I asked cheerfully. The distance from my wife the whole day had lifted up my spirits. At first Francis seemed hesitant to open up but after a little cajoling he said, "It’s my wife Anthony. She’s been acting very weird lately." "What do you mean weird?" A cold chill went up my spine as I questioned him casually. Francis popped his head out of his newspaper stand and looked to the left and right to make sure no one was listening. Then he looked at me sheepishly and said "Well, she thinks the world is going to end very soon" his tone implied disgust. I tried to close my mouth but it opened like it was set on a pop up spring and stared at him with horror. "Are you sure"? I asked. "What? That the world is going to end soon? Of course not." Francis was looking at me as if I had lost my mind. "No no?." I hastened to correct him. "I mean are you sure she said that?" "Of course I’m sure" Francis replied. "she’s been saying this everyday for the past one week".
My knees buckled under me and I stooped into Francis’s shop and plonked myself on the wooden stool that he used to climb up to those unreachable places. In two minutes flat I explained to him about my own wife’s doomsday fantasies and when I finished we both looked at each other. Finally Francis said lamely "You know both our wives know each other well. Maybe it’s a combined plot to drive us to our graves at the earliest?" I was not convinced. We compared notes on our assets. I was a modest clerk at the local bank and my earnings were deposited in the same bank to avail maximum staff interest, but they were hardly enough to enable my wife to go on a world cruise on my demise. Francis had an ancestral plot in his village but the plot had more rocks than soil and was hardly worth a business gamble. So what were these two up to?
Our individual problems had now assumed gigantic proportions as they spoke of a combined plot. We now both remembered things we had earlier not given much importance to but which now seemed to be somehow connected to each other. Whispered conversations on the phone, hurried visits to each other’s houses, the timings matched and so did the idiosyncracies. Their complaints about us were similar too. We didn’t spend enough time with them, we ignored responsibilities at home, we drank too much, we never remembered birthdays and anniversaries, we were insensitive, we had no savings, we were uncouth, we belched and scratched in public?.the list went on and on.
Suddenly Francis clutched my arm violently and pointed to a slit between the Udayavani and the Mirror. He lifted the newspaper so that I could get a better view. I gasped. There was Philomena, Francis’s wife, clad in a blue nylon saree walking at a furious pace with Leticia my own wife who was wearing one of her Sunday best sarees, the green one with white flowers on it. They disappeared from our view walking at the same furious pace.
"Quick. Let’s follow them," said Francis as he pushed me out of his shop and drew the wooden shutters and slipped the lock into place. We crossed the road and hurried in the direction in which Francis’s scooter was parked. Within minutes we caught sight of them and just in time too as they were getting into an auto. We followed at a discreet distance. Francis’s head was covered by his helmet and I hid my face conveniently behind his helmet. The auto took a turn at the junction and went into a side lane. We almost lost sight of them as a big city bus blocked our view for a few minutes. But snaking around the bus we managed to give chase again. The auto slowed down and stopped right in front of the city theatre. Francis braked violently and spoke to me in a muffled voice "Do you think they’re going for a movie?" "No, look" I said loudly enough for my voice to reach Francis’s helmet clad ears.
Both Philomena and Lethi had alighted from the auto, paid the driver and were now walking towards the restaurant next to the theatre. There was a visible change in their mood now and they were talking and giggling like two silly schoolgirls. The first doubt crept into my mind as I watched them and I could see Francis was equally uncomfortable. Though our wives had been quite pretty when we married them, the housework and married routine had taken its toll on them and over the years we had slotted them under the safe and happily married category. In fact we had thought it was quite safe to ignore them too. The thought of them being attracted to some other man apart from us had never entered our heads. "Besides, which man would have anything to do with these two shrews?" I thought trying to convince myself as much as possible.
"We have to go inside and find out" Francis’s voice interrupted my thoughts, at the same time indicating that he was thinking along the same lines. We remembered the restaurant as being very dim with high booths to ensure privacy. "Let’s go" I said feeling somewhat like a worm but there was no way out of this. With our collars turned up around our faces and looking like cheap sleuths from a rundown detective agency, we climbed the steps and entered the dim restaurant. It took our eyes a couple of minutes to adjust to the darkness. And then suddenly there was light. No I am not courting the Bible. There really was light and lots of it. The room was flooded with light and in the middle stood our wives with a big group of people behind them all shouting ?Surprise’ and ?Happy Anniversary.’
We stood at the entrance of the restaurant with shock written all over our faces and also a certain amount of relief. Gosh they were not having an affair after all was the first thought that crossed my mind. Forgetting the anniversary was something we did every year, they should be used to it by now. As we moved forward into the crowd, Francis whispered in my ear "Not a word of this to anyone. Let’s get drunk and celebrate that our wives are ours alone, shrews and all." I winked at him and proceeded to envelop my wife in an anniversary hug.
The party went on till the wee hours of the morning. Francis took his wife home on his scooter and Leticia and I took an autorickshaw home. On the way back my wife was strangely quiet and rejected all my advances for a romantic end to the evening. Just before going to bed she said ? "So you and Francis really believed we were having an affair?" Of course, how could I have forgotten, I thought. We had actually suspected our wives of having an affair and what’s more our wives were not going to allow us to forget that. It would take a lot of presents to get them around I thought, feeling the first sensation of burning fire in my stomach.
Thanks to the dedicated waiters at the restaurant, the heavy doses of rum and whiskey throughout the evening had taken their toll and I was feeling very drowsy. I should not have had that last peg that Leticia had so lovingly poured out for me. Suddenly I remembered that Philomena had poured a similar one for Francis too. Francis must be feeling very sleepy too I thought hazily.
Leticia said to me sweetly, "Do you remember what I said to you this morning? About the world coming to an end in 2007?" "Yes", I replied sleepily, struggling to keep my eyes open. I saw my wife lean over me. Her smile had turned very sinister now and there was an evil glint in her eyes. "I was wrong darling" she whispered, "The world is not going to end in 2007. For you sweetheart it’s going to end in 2006." I felt a sudden constriction in my throat as reality dawned but it was too late. The burning sensation in my stomach was slowly rising up to my chest and the beating of my heart seemed unnaturally loud to my own years. My last thought as I slipped into eternal oblivion was "Heck Francis I hope you’re already waiting for me up there."
12:01 AM, January 1, 2007 The phone rings at Philomena’s place. Leticia whispers ? "It is done." Philomena giggles as she whispers back "Here too. Happy New Year. Let’s celebrate at the same place tomorrow and this time Robert and Nelson don’t have to disguise themselves as waiters."
"Neither do we have to walk past that tacky newspaper shop anymore. We can take an auto directly from the house. Happy New Year Philomena", Leticia laughingly replies as she puts down the phone. She walks to the CD player and slips in a CD and the beautiful notes of that all familiar New Year song drift into the room???
"Should old acquaintances be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne………….?"
Author: Vikram Salian- Mumbai- India