She rolled the windows down, as she drove out of the city and entered the highways. The cool fresh breeze caressing her face as she drove on the smooth roads made her feel alive again. Away from the concrete jungle, she felt recharged amidst the greenery around her. She drove on, as Vashti Bunyan alternated with Catherine Howe on her customised playlist. The old country songs took her back to a happy place. At a time when she played her guitar with a wanton abandon she could only imagine these days. She was happy to discover that the old her was still buried somewhere deep inside.
Her career was high and flying in the city. As one of the leading investment bankers, she had her clients eating out of her hands as she rapidly climbed the rungs of success. Her personal life was finally finding peace after a messy divorce and a lengthy custody battle which she eventually won. It was time for a little break she felt. Which is why she had decided on the rather impromptu trip back to her old childhood town. She knew her kids would be happy with their grandparents in their city penthouse for a couple of days.
As the road signs indicated she was nearing her old town she felt a surge of memories battling to find their place inside her head. Too many of them jostled with each other to make their presence felt. She drove on at a leisurely pace as her mind sped much faster to those happier times.
As she was just about to enter the town she crossed the dead hills, as they used to call them in her town. She got off her car and bent down to touch the last remains of snow, as winter was saying it’s final goodbye. She searched in her mind for both their names written in that snow. Aeons ago. As she caressed the glistening snow she smiled, surprising herself. It had been ages since she had smiled so genuinely. She sighed as she got back in her car and drove on towards the town.
As she approached the town centre, she looked around to see that not much had changed. The bakery, the barber shop, the convenience store, the bookshop. They were all there. Had it not been for the car models, she could have sworn not a day had passed. Her heart was in each of these places at the same time. Those wondrous cream rolls, the first edition tattered Scott Fitzgerald they both fought to read at the same time in the library, the Barber Shop where she’d bribe the old man to make a mess of his hair. She smiled as memories played hide and seek within her.
Then she saw the shop. Conflicting emotions clashed inside her as she stopped in front of the store. She wondered if he was still there. There was no way people in the town could recognise her now. Her chestnut wavy hair had given way to a much smarter, blunter cut. She had lost oodles of her puppy fat to look svelte and chic. And her light brown sunglasses covered her almond eyes and half her face. She wondered more importantly, if she could recognise him.
She entered the store and felt a familiar fragrance engulf her. It was the smell of her childhood, of her younger days. Strangely she felt calmer as she closed her eyes to take in more of the past with her breath. She felt safe and warm from inside. She wandered aimlessly inside glancing through rows of canned food and soup. She picked up a packet of her favourite clear soup. “The sage croutons go very well with them,” she felt an inexplicable rush as she heard that familiar voice. She stopped breathing for a bit, in order to steady her racing heart. She nodded a yes without saying a word. She picked up the bag of croutons without turning towards the direction the voice came from.
She expected to see him at the counter. “Would that be all,” she was surprised to hear a lady speak to her. She looked up and saw a blonde-haired genial smiling face looking at her. She nodded a yes again as she took out money to pay for the soup and croutons. She looked around and saw a young boy maybe a year older than her children, loitering nearby within the store. She smiled at the lady in the counter. “Sweet boy,” she said as she left the store.
She sat in her car, the two packets next to her on the front seat. She wondered where he was. They were inseparable when they were younger. So much younger than today. They dreamed together of a happy future. The only difference was that happiness meant different things to them. He was never as big as her ambitions and her dreams were. “I can never leave this place,” he had told her, all those years ago, when she expected his support for her dreams of making it big in the city. “We can be happy here as well”, he tried to reason. She felt cheated that her aspirations didn’t mean much to him. She felt let down. She wept as she took the bus to the city that decisive night. She felt alone. Being away from home. From him. But in a strange way that made her more determined to succeed. In her later years when she achieved all that she had set out to, she felt satisfied, although deep inside she could never forgive him. And today as she sat outside his store that resentment clawed back at her again. Only now, there were years of memories and moments, which softened the harshness of her thoughts. She smiled softly to herself as she drove on to check-in to the best B&B the town had to offer.
“Why aren’t you eating properly?”, his wife asked him, adjusting her blonde hair, as he sat on the dinner table fiddling with his Sunday roast. The vegetables lay untouched as the meat and gravy went cold. He looked up and smiled at her. His face, despite the year old salt & pepper beard, looked younger and brighter than it had been for a while now. She felt happy to see him this way. She always felt he was at peace but not happy. Today she saw that happiness she longed for, in his eyes.
“I feel like having soup ,” he finally said. “Can you make me a nice one tonight my beautiful missus”, he had rarely sounded sweeter to her as he did that afternoon. She gently placed her hand on his and smiled.
Back in the B&B she made her clear soup and like the old times, munched on the croutons separately.
Copyright (c) Pratik Majumdar