Chico awoke and lay in bed. It had been a clammy, heavy sleep, brought on by worry and a deeper sense of achievement —I mean—he was going to pull it off surely— but then one never knew with parents. Or rather, parent.
His father—known to be compassionate and caring to whom, people always turned to in times of despair—had lately felt a little off. Crackled in anger when contradicted and lost his temper at dinner when Chico refused to take another helping of gourd. At such times his lower lip stuck out and his right ear turned red. Chico had to hold himself tight to force the gourd down his resisting throat and wait for a distracting telephone call before bolting into the kitchen and ramming the remains down into a half-jammed dustbin.
Still, a new beginning today. Chico listened to the morning sounds—phones ringing, taps whooshing water, a contented dove purring to itself on the windowsill, someone tinkling a puja bell in the apartment.
He waited for his father to open and close his wardrobe door before opening his own eyes. Good. It was imperative that Dad should be out of the house today.
Fewer rules and that hateful gourd curry. Everyone heaved sighs of relief when he left. When he became a dad- but no- that might not be possible- judging from his unconventional interests and ideas- no girl would be willing to go out with him, let alone marry- and all those obscure methods for processing a son. Thinking of the perils of the future he dozed off again.
The dove was still purring when he awoke half an hour later.
The house seemed to be still. Chico edged himself out of the bed and paused before the window. Down below a narrow patch called loftily the garden. A jackfruit tree, some hibiscus bushes, a straggling something which had supposed to bloom this year and didn’t and the fast moving, all encompassing money plant.
At the end under the coconut tree lay Nano’s mound. He had watered the money plant around and willed it to grow and spread over- but the mound remained stark naked. Almost two months now. Would she have passed into bone and dust or were the eyes still discernible as eyes.
Chico frowned. He had looked up the internet for Poems of Consolation and found two from Wordsworth that seemed to give a good idea of what Nano and he must be going through. His eyes were beginning to fill with tears so he rubbed them energetically with his knuckles and concentrated on getting to the bathroom without incident.
At ten thirty he hazarded the phone call. It had been a trying month and his balance was getting low so it had to be quick.
“Is she coming?”
“Yes. Just going to pick her up.”
“When will you be here?”
An hour’s time. You got the money right?” The voice at the other end drawled.
‘Obviously. Five thousand.’
‘And two more for the vaccination. Plus the dog food. You’re sure you have that much?’
‘Yes I do. Someone was kind. I got seven. I can pay you.’
Silence. Then the voice again- a little tamed by curiosity- “Who gave you seven?”
“God did. Hurry up.”
The voice at the other end hesitated. ‘You told your Dad, right? I mean- —if he doesn’t agree it means I get into trouble. Nobody will take back a pup that has been sold.”
“No problem. ” Chico’s stomach fluttered but he took a deep breath to steady himself. “’It’s he who pitched in with half the amount so obviously he wants it.’ Another breath before the second lie. ‘He will be at home around twelve so you must bring it over by then. He leaves at 2 30 for a meeting.’
Neat, thought Chico to himself as he disconnected the line. Substituted Dad’s departure time for arrival. Can always pretend I got it mixed up.
Chico slid into the kitchen and waited for the maid to pour him his Horlicks and fry an egg.
At the table Dad was frowning and reading the newspaper. A bowl full of almonds and cashew nuts stood alongside another bowl filled with muesli alongside a third saucer with sliced apple and sliced papaya. Chico gritted his teeth and sat down to the funeral feast while Dad pretended to read the newspaper, check his email and keep an eye on how much of the apple, papaya, muesli, almonds, cashews and egg had been consumed.
There was no conversation. Now that Mom was gone, they hadn’t much to say to one another.
Chico pretended to reach out for the almond bowl with his left hand and maneuvered a look at his watch. Would the man never go? It was almost time.
The doorbell rang. Oh no! He was too early.
‘Bhagirath wants your bag. Shall I put it in your car?’
Dad looked at his watch and frowned. ‘Another ten minutes later.’
Chico swallowed the almond whole. Wasn’t he supposed to be leaving at 12 today?
It was almost time for the other consignment to appear. For the first time a horrible doubt began to creep in to the boy’s mind. Had he—did he—know?
Dad’s telephone buzzed and Chico slipped out of his chair. He went to his room and looked out into the garden. A troop of sparrows were hopping about and the dove inspected them keenly.
But the mound looked as bare and, well, mound-ish, as ever. Nothing seemed to be growing there.
He looked at his watch again. It had been half an hour since his conversation—so half an hour to pick it up and put it into the car.
A keen excitement took him—he closed his eyes—nothing could go wrong now—he had prayed at the peepal tree temple—he had checked the tarot card reading on the internet—he had trusted—a benevolent god of twelve-year-olds! Even if Dad was a bit upset at first something would work out. Mom would put in a word long distance.
The bell rang. Chico rushed to the stairs at the same time as the maid did. I’ll get it.
‘No need,’ said the maid. ‘Bhagirath’s handing in the keys. Dad’s not going out. His meeting got cancelled.’
Chico climbed back. His steps were heavy. Had his gods deserted him? Without his dad, there was an eighty to twenty percent chance that she would get in. Without the benediction of Dad’s departure it would take chances down to fifty-fifty—almost forty-fifty.
A phone rang somewhere. Dimly Chico realized it was his own phone. He tried to quicken his pace but faltered. Dad had picked it up. Hello—yes—no. I’m at home—what is it— dog . . . I didn’t . . . no question . . . mistake . . . Chico did . . . he did? Extraordinarily courageous of him to think he could smuggle another one in . . . no damages . . . what do I care if you negotiate with a twelve year old . . . stop it.
Chico, listening at the door, knew it was all over.
Heavy steps and a livid face. Yes—the lower lip was thrust out and the right ear—no— both ears were crimson.
He waited for the storm to subside. It was as if he was in the pool and he could hear voices carry in from the poolside as he dived in for another stroke—how could you . . . defy me . . . two dogs dead in seven years . . . no one to look after . . . you’re always ill . . . infection . . . begging doctors . . . I told you not to . . . how dare you.
Tears welled up and began to streak untidily down Chico’s face.
In the tangle of emotions he could see a fat tear drop balancing on his nose. He quivered his nose a little and the drop disappeared.
Marks . . . responsibility . . . look how Nano died . . . all over again.
“But I only wanted another pet. Many of my friends have cats or dogs. Arun lost his dog a year back and got another one.”
“You’ve had two dogs in seven years. How many more times to you want to repeat the process? They bring in infection. You’re always ill.”
“But what about your hobbies? All that bonsai and gourd and pumpkin which you grow on the terrace and no one eats—just because it’s something which meets your approval.”
“That’s different. Don’t try to blackmail me. Those things are good for your health. A dog is not.”
Something cracked inside Chico. He turned and stumbled back to his room. Put his fists to his eyes and tried to stem the tide of tears—then put down his head and wept. Doors banged. A car started. The maid clattered in the kitchen and the shrill beep of the washing machine sounded thrice.
Chico raised his head. Something seemed to have flashed across the room again and there was an unmistakable patter. Had dad allowed it to be brought in after all? He looked wildly around the room, then walked unsteadily to the bathroom and checked there. Nothing. Miracles happened in movies and books, not in real life.
His eyes strayed to the mound in the garden again. Still, lifeless and severe. Only, one end seemed to be broken, as if something had turned up the earth. A trail of creeping money plant lay trampled and faint paw marks etched the dry ground. . . .