Short Story: An Evening with Father by Revathi Ganeshsundaram
I am waiting for my father. I glance at the clock. It is not yet time, and he never delays, but I am impatient. As I fidget with my things, I suddenly feel a chill enveloping me. Shivering involuntarily, I glance up sharply. The study door is swinging on its hinges. Sure enough, Dad is ready.
“I’m sorry,” he says with an apologetic smile. “Is it very cold?”
I smile back. I am so glad to see him, I cannot complain. “No matter, Daddy,” I say as I cross over to shut the door still gently creaking in the wind from the open window beyond.
I come back and look at him. He is wearing a faded shirt, and he looks frail and old, but his face shines. Is he in perfect health, or is he so glad to be with me?
“What have you planned for us today?” he asks with child-like eagerness. It is still chill, so I pick up a shawl I had kept ready and wrap it around myself before answering. I want to match his enthusiasm, but the truth is, I am apprehensive. I am afraid he might not be able to do the things he would want to.
“Well,” I reply cautiously, “I got some books for you from the library. I thought maybe you could try reading one of them…”
“Excellent!” he cries happily. “P.G. Wodehouse? Or some new author? It does not matter! But I hope they are in large print?” His eyes go round in apprehension, but I allay his fears with a nod, and he smiles again.
As he potters off towards the bookshelf where he knows I keep the books I get for him, I bite my lip and pray silently. “Please,” I beg. “Please let him be able to do this…”
I take my time following. Maybe he would do better if left alone. Minutes pass. There is no sound from Daddy. I cannot see what he is doing as he has his back to me. Heart plummeting, I approach him. He turns around, disappointment writ large on his face.
“I’m not able to pick up these books,” he says. “Can you just hand me one?”
“Sure, Daddy, no problem,” I say in a falsely cheery voice, and pick them all up. I show them to him one by one so that he can decide for himself. He chooses one, then has me open it to confirm that it really is in large print. I cannot help smiling as I hand it to him.
Crash! The book has slipped through his fingers and now lies at his feet.
“Sorry, Daddy, I was careless as usual – I should have waited until you had taken hold of it,” I hasten to say, as much to convince myself as him. He does not say anything.
“Shall we try again?” I ask, “I’ll be really careful this time…”
He holds out both his hands edge-to-edge like a safety net, but the gesture looks like one of supplication, and it wrings my heart. Very, very carefully this time, with my brow furrowed in concentration, I gently place the book on his upturned palms.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I’ve been trying, really….”
His apology pierces my heart like an arrow. “Why are you apologizing, Daddy?” I demand, then realize that my pain is making me sound angry. More gently I say, “It’s okay, maybe another time, all right?”
He nods, ever acquiescent, and I lead the way away from the shelves.
Within seconds he bounces back to cheerfulness. “Umm, so tell me, what else had you planned?”
I do not answer, and he interprets my silence correctly. “Don’t worry,” he says gently, “We’ll try it, whatever it is, but we’ll take a resolution that we won’t be disappointed, all right?”
I look at him and am reassured by his cheerful smile. “Yes, that’s the spirit!” I agree and then stop short, fearing I have been flippant. But he chuckles.
“Ok,” I say reluctantly, “I’ll tell you what I had planned, but we won’t do it if you think it’ll be too difficult. Promise? You’ll tell me if you think you can’t do it, won’t you?”
“First tell me what it is!” he insists, and I am amused that he can still be mildly adamant when he wants something.
“Ok,” I say again. “I had thought you might like some tea – I got some tea-bags from the department store. The masala and the lemon-flavored ones are nice, but….”
“Oh, good!” he cries, rubbing his hands in glee. “It has been ages since I had a good cup of tea! I’ll take masala – give it to me in my usual mug, won’t you?”
I hesitate. “Daddy, please, if you don’t mind, can we use the unbreakable cup this time? Just this once…?”
He looks at me and understands my anxiety. “Of course!” he agrees readily, but I sense I have shaken his confidence a bit. I silently curse myself as I boil water and pour it out into two identical cups.
I am ready to go through the ordeal again, but I am determined not to let go of the cup like I let go of the book. I am not spilling hot tea on my father, even if he insists that he is not scalded.
Maybe my holding the cup helps. He is able to hold it too – well, at least he is touching the handle. I gently raise it to his lips. He struggles to sip, in my eagerness I probably tilt the cup a little too much, tea slops onto his shirt.
Hastily putting the cup aside, I try to pat him dry, but he waves my hand aside. To my surprise, he looks excited. “It’s hot!” he exclaims, “I can actually feel the hot tea on my chest!”
I am aghast and remorseful, but he is thrilled. “No, no, it didn’t hurt, trust me,” he says.
Looking at his happy face I have to believe him. I am so glad.
“Did you taste the tea?” I really do not have much hope, but my desire is great. He nods, but I am not convinced. “Tell me what spices you could taste!” I challenge. He rattles off a list. I look at him suspiciously, then go back to check the tea-pack. I am surprised to find that he is right. I still do not believe him, so I ask whether he had read what was printed on the box while I was pouring out the water.
“What a suspicious girl!” he laughs. “No, believe me, I did taste it. If you like, we can have some more.”
Of course I do, so we repeat the exercise, and spill more tea. But Dad gets excited about the warmth of the liquid and the tang of the spices, so we end up giggling like children enjoying a messy game.
“What shall we do now?” he asks when we finally sober up.
“Let’s go for a walk!” I declare. He looks at me doubtfully. “Is it safe for you to be out so late on a Sunday evening? There will not be many people around…”
“But you’ll be with me!” The success of the tea-party has made me reckless.
He does not want to disappoint me, but he is still not convinced. “What protection am I to you?” he asks sadly, “You saw how I was with the books.”
“But your mind is so strong, Daddy,” I say, thinking of the tea.
He is silent. To give him time to make up his mind, I pick up the cups and take them into the kitchen. When I come back, I am surprised to hear him say, “All right, let’s go!” He sounds happy.
It is only when I am slipping on my shoes that I notice the windows. The blinds are drawn shut. I distinctly remember opening them earlier this evening. He has done it! I am so excited.
We take a short walk around the block. Most people are indoors watching the Sunday evening movie on television, but the street is not deserted yet. Dad need not have worried.
We walk along for a while in companionable silence until I notice something disturbing. The few people we pass seem to be staring at us. I glare back at them convinced that they are objecting to my father’s appearance, his clothes or something.
But before I can share my annoyance with Daddy, he says, “Don’t worry, it isn’t me.” He then solves the mystery – “It’s your shawl,” he explains. “It’s summer, isn’t it?”
I laugh in relief, then stop abruptly as a passer-by gives me an odd look.
Something wet splashes onto my arm. A raindrop! I glance up in alarm as more follow in rapid succession. Without warning the heavens have opened. Drat, why didn’t I bring an umbrella?
Thankfully, there is a covered bus-stop just ahead. I shepherd Daddy under the fortuitous shelter, then dash back out to snatch up my bag which I have just dropped. The short sojourn into the rain drenches me. Thank God at least Daddy will be dry, I think.
“I’m completely wet,” he says in a plaintive tone. I turn around surprised. The words, “How can you be wet, Daddy?” die in my throat. He is soaked too. I stare for a moment, transfixed. Then my heart soars.
I reach out for his arm. He is so thin that my fingers go almost the whole way around. It seems ages since I touched him, held him. I hug him gently, while salty tears run down my cheeks and mingle with the rain.
But the sky soon clears, and we start back. Our return journey is slower as I am now holding his arm, guiding his steps. I know he can walk unguided, but I want to do this. And he understands and indulges me.
Back at home I fumble with the keys, then push the heavy door open and step back to let him in. But he is already inside. I shiver in the sudden chill. I cannot believe it is summer.
He turns around. “Are you still outside? Come in quick and dry yourself before you start sneezing.” His solicitous instruction warms me more than any Turkish towel or hair dryer could.
I rub a towel over my hair and watch with bated breath as he tries to pick up a book with tremulous fingers. He succeeds! “I told you that you had a powerful mind, Daddy!” I exclaim joyfully. He beams at me.
I hover anxiously near him as he slowly eases himself into his favorite armchair. No fear. He is comfortably settled.
We spend a satisfying hour reading from our respective books. For the most part we read quietly, but now and then we comment to each other when we come across an amusing passage.
“All right then,” Daddy says at last, “I guess I’ll call it a day. Don’t go to bed without having your dinner!”
I cannot bear to let him out of my sight, but it is late, so I nod. As I help him up from his chair, he reassures me, “We’ll do this again soon.” He then raises his hand in a farewell gesture and signs off with his signature benediction, “All the best!”
I watch with hungry eyes as he slowly shuffles down the corridor and out of my sight. My ears strain to pick up his last footstep. When I can no longer hear anything, I sigh and turn away.
There are some things I must do before I go to bed. I put away my untouched dinner, rinse the tea-things, and wipe down the stove-top. Then I turn off the gas regulator, check the front door, and move from room to room switching off the lights.
All but the one above my desk in our study.
This lamp forever burns before the photograph of my late father smiling benignly down at me. I hope it will keep him warm through the cold long night.
Revathi Ganeshsundaram taught in a Business School in South India for several years until she recently took a break to study Counseling Psychology. A self-professed introvert, she is most comfortable in the company of family, books, and herself – not necessarily in the same order. She finds the written word therapeutic and hence loves reading and writing fiction, sometimes dabbling a little in poetry. Her earlier work has appeared in print in Children’s World and The Indian Express. More recently, her work has been published online in Borderless Journal and Readomania.