That evening he had the parlor duty.
It was barely 5.30 but a velvety mist had already started settling down on the lush greenery of the valley. Month of December, just three more days for Christmas.
A home for the Senior Citizens, not a home for the aged, anymore. Seventy four year old Mr. Pinto had visitors. His grandchildren, all spring chicks; busty, shapely dolls, reeking of expensive perfumes. "You see, uncle," they said to him. "We won’t have any time during Christmas. That’s why we want to see grandpa today itself."
He nodded absently. The girls had wrapped up boxes in their hands. "This Christmas there will be a deluge of Christmas cakes," he muttered to himself as he ushered the three girls into the parlor. Mr. Pinto was confined to the bed and a wheel chair and so a maid wheeled him out into the parlour.
It turned breezy as he took his seat in the portico of the parlor and he buttoned up his windcheater, wrapped the woolen muffler around his neck and rubbed his palms.
At the end of the corridor a 9-foot high Christmas Tree stood, ready to be decked with lights, decorations, streamers, tiny angels and of course, cute little Santas. The inmates were already at the job.
Agnes had not come, yet.
The evenings he had parlor duty she would be by his side by 5.45. "Hummm" he muttered once again to himself, a habit that he had involuntarily cultivated from the last three years. "Must be still listening to the yarns of her new roommate, London Lucy!" Now he smiled to himself.
"And who might it be this time that makes my husband smile so capriciously?" Hearing Agnes, he turned his head and laughed rather loud. Agnes eyed him head to toe. "I have told you time and again, Rudolph" she said sternly. "That you should always cover your ears with the muffler." She pulled it off from his neck, put it on his head and draped it down to cover his ears and then the neck.
"Has London Lucy finished her raunchy tales?" he asked Agnes.
She gave him a surprised look. "Don’t tell me you know her too!" she exclaimed.
"And why not?" he retorted with a question, nudging Agnes at the same time. "Quite a dish of those days, you see. The first one from my parish to sail on a steamer to London. She has remained the same except for a sag or two, here and there?" His eyes showed a mischievous glint.
Agnes, shrugged, helplessly. Rudolph, her husband of nearly forty-five years always believed in living a full life.
Just two days back Lucy’s children had ?deposited’ her in the Home. The parting scene was touchy. Oh, what tears, hugs and kisses.
Now, Agnes sat next to him.
"Mervin’s letter has come," she said, looking at her own toes. "That’s why I was delayed by a few minutes?" He noticed a tremor in her voice. She pulled out an airmail letter from her camelhair overcoat and gave it to him.
He glanced at it but did not open it.
"He will not be coming?" he asked. "Even this year?" he placed his cold palm on Agnes.
"Our grandchild, Eliza is engaged to be married," she told him. "It happened all of a sudden says Mervin. The wedding is during the Christmas week?the boy is from Canada. All of them will be flying to Canada from New York?no time to send the invites, he says."
He pressed Agnes’ hand, reassuringly.
"What could he do?" he said. "Eliza is his only child. How could he come to India?"
"This year, this is the reason," Agnes said with a sigh. "What about last year?the year before? He too is our only child."
Rudolph did not say anything.
It was just three years ago that Agnes and he were ‘deposited’ here. The memories of that day were palpably painful. The parlor reverberated with a medley of voices as everyone wanted to say something; Mervin, his wife Beulah, daughter Eliza, the Mother Superior, two other nuns?the lot.
"Mum, Dad," said Mervin, taking charge and hugging them both, "I know what is churning up in your minds. I am your only child yes and you are apprehensive as to what the society will say for getting you into a Senior Citizens’ Home." He paused to let his words sink. "But I am not afraid of the society," he continued after a dramatic pause. "I am just concerned about your safety and well-being."
"Look, Ma," he said, slightly cowing at their silence. "We have settled down in the States and our Eliza?she just simply cannot adjust elsewhere, even for an hour. She too has right to her own future, you see. She is grown. Gone are the days of our annual visits. Not any more. Beulah wants to continue her studies?you know how it is in the States, one never stops studying. Certainly it would be possible at least for me to come down for a week or so but I cannot say when. Eliza is already seventeen."
He released them from his hug and walked towards his wife. "You will not be lacking anything here and of course, there is no dearth of money. These nuns will love you unremittingly. I am told, of course, that you will be housed in different blocks and rooms?. but all in the same compound, mind you!" He laced his words with some forced laughter and gave a sidelong glance to the nuns. "You can see each other, meet each other as often as you wish. And of course Mum and Dad, I will not be selling our palatial bungalow; it will be always there for you, it will be always yours. Here, here are the keys?.."
Rudolph had accepted the key bunch without a word.
"Why don’t you say something?" Mervin’s voice now sounded shrill. "Of course I cannot promise you the opulent luxuries here but you should understand the reasoning behind my decision." He started pacing the parlor. "Let’s be practical. How long?how many more years you’ll be able to walk around healthily? Mum is already showing sign of arthritis and you Dad?blood pressure, blood glucose?. What next?"
"We understand Mervin," Rudolph raised a paternal hand to silence him. "We have given you birth but have no lien on your life!"
"You really mean it, Dad?" Mervin jumped, failing to see the subtlety of his father’s words.
"Has your father ever bluffed you, my son?" Agnes had asked him.
Relieved and contented, Mervin straightened up to his full height and beamed at them. What followed were a few more hugs, kisses and tears.
The parlor became deserted in no time. Their belongings moved, the nuns showed them their respective blocks and rooms.
Tags of love, service, sacrifice and mandatory prayers and devotions hyphenated every aspect of the life in the Home. Reasonably good food, a clean campus, picnics and ‘big meal’ every now and then, courtesy some big time society wedding, christening, month’s mind mass and the like. Compulsory medical, every month.
"You become exceptionally emotional during Christmas, Agnes," observed Rudolph. "And then you get carried away!" He carped. "What is the point?"
"God comes very close to us humans during Christmas or so I have heard!" said Agnes.
"May be so!" said Rudolph merrily. "Some guy has already placed the Babe in the manger."
They both laughed.
"You know what, Agnes?" said Rudolph. "Even this year, the Mother Superior wants me to be the Santa Claus!"
"You’re landed!" exclaimed Agnes. "Lucky rogue! You will kiss each and every woman in this place including the nuns. Last year you didn’t spare that European nun even."
"Jealousy, thy name is Agnes!" he said keeping up the tempo of mirth. "But never fear?I am ready now to sweep you in my arms and kiss the daylights out of you."
Agnes’ shriveled cheeks strained to show some color.
The nuns had drawn up a beautiful program. The night was exceptionally cold, the wind mild but crispy dry. The Mass was early at 7.30 followed by Carols, a carousal around the Christmas tree and then a sumptuous meal. Those who wanted and could dance were permitted this pleasure, of course, sanitized by the rules and norms of the Home.
The Christmas bonfire burned and the crackling of the burning firewood was heart-warming.
Rudolph had dressed up as the Santa right before the service. Agnes watched him with mixed feelings of love and compassion. Once the Service was over, he sprang into action. He pranced around like a child, ringing the bell, his ungainly Santa belly wobbling. He hugged and kissed everyone around and distributed gifts. He did not spare the European nun from his kisses.
When the focus turned on to the carols, tree and some brew the nuns had clandestinely prepared, he came to Agnes.
They hugged each other warmly, silently. She could hear his heart pounding. Their silence spoke.
"I want a Christmas present," he whispered in her ear as they moved to a dark corner.
"Yes, dear Santa Claus!" she replied. "Just say the word dear, dear Santa."
"Just say the word."
He paused as if to muster up his nerves.
"We should elope from here!" he said. "Right now."
"Are you out of your mind, Rudolph?" she pushed him away a few inches. "That brew was not too heady for you, was it?"
…How many days, how many months, how many years?.we do not know. But we will be here, right here like those bulbuls, in our own nest….
He said nothing but looked expectantly into her eyes.
"Elope? Where to?" she asked, not knowing what exactly he wanted.
He looked around and whispered. "First, to the nearest town in the valley. Wish everyone we meet. Then I will buy the best wine available and a roast turkey?"
He paused, perhaps to hear a word of appreciation.
"And then, dear Santa?"
He hugged her again, warmly.
"We will spend this beautiful night in our own bungalow!" he sounded incredible to Agnes. "I have the permission from Mother Superior."
Agnes’ face bloomed briefly.
"What is left there in that bungalow, Rudolph?" her voice was emotion laden.
He held her by her shoulders. "My bulbul birds," he said. "You know they nest on the ledge?.."
"You must be out of your mind!" she said, slightly moving away from him. "Bulbuls fly away from this valley in winter. They need warmth, you know."
He looked up at the clear December sky. "The warmth in our bungalow never wilts." He said, holding her hand.
She breathed heavily and her breath gave out a warm, misty cloud. "You’re just impossible!" she exclaimed. "Prance in the town, wine and roast turkey? All this, at this age?"
"Let’s find out!"
"Dear Santa Claus," she submitted. "Would you at least change this ridiculous costume?"
"Never!" he stamped the ground with his foot. "No Santa on earth would find a more charming lady to take around this Christmas night!"
"You are incorrigible," she whispered as they slipped out of the main gate.
The clock struck two in the morning as the taxi, which brought them, came to a halt in front of the bungalow. They were panting but merrily. There was light burning in the porch. Mervin had made all the arrangements, even employing a full time watchman.
"Merrry Christmas Sir!" the taxi driver pumped their hands down, exuberant at the generous tip Rudolph had given him.
"I can’t believe that we did it!" Agnes said. "Are we still this strong?"
Rudolph’s silence was her answer.
They opened the huge rosewood door and went in. Rudolph threw a switch and the lights came on. The air inside was moldy. Although the watchman had kept everything in order, the atmosphere spoke of the lack of human habitation.
"Don’t you now go looking for the bulbuls!" Agnes warned him. "Change into something clean and warm. I will light the fire. I am starving?."
Rudolph did as he was ordered.
As the fire in the fireplace started throwing up long, warm flame they heard that ageless hymn from somewhere?.
"It was on a night like this our Mervin took his first step!" Agnes choked on her own words.
He watched her, intently.
Their Christmas had started.
When the wine in the bottle got over, when the roast turkey was picked to bones, they were not aware. The flood of memories was an unbeatable intoxicant.
When he woke up the fire in the fireplace was mere cinders. But there was warmth around the place. Agnes was curled up on the carpet, fast asleep. Weak rays of the morning sun were finding a way through the thick curtains. The mist was beginning to disappear.
Some sound, a familiar one at that.
Birds were chirping.
He got up with a start and ran out in that chill. He reached the window, climbed the sill and pulled himself up to peep on to the ledge.
The nest was there and they were there too. The bulbuls. Were they the same ones, he did not know.
But he did not care.
His eyes became misty and his whole body shook as he wept.
After an eternity, he came back into the bungalow to wake up Agnes.
"It is the wonder of wonders, Agnes!" he exclaimed. "A miracle indeed."
"The bulbuls have not flown away, Rudolph."
"How do you know?"
"They woke me up, quite a while ago." She said, planting a soft kiss on his cheeks. "I dozed off to their chirping."
"Then…Agnes…." His words trailed into expectant silence.
"Yes, dear Santa Claus!" she said. "How many days, how many months, how many years?.we do not know. But we will be here, right here like those bulbuls, in our own nest!"
Edwin J. F. D’Souza [Mangalorean Star: September, 2004]
I would like to sincerely thank those readers who have appreciated/commented my Christmas short-story "Dear Santa Claus" on Mangalorean Voices.
Rest assured I will be a regular contributor to Mangalorean.com
Thank you and have a peaceful 2007
Edwin JF DSouza
Author: Edwin JF DSouza- Mangalore