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Short Story Contest 2020-21

The Well-known Stranger

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It was a perfect day…for remaining at home.  I was on a leave of absence from the office on grounds of fictitious flu.  I had planned my day perfectly.  I would make a strong cup of coffee for myself, take my favourite pillow and blanket to the sofa, put Beethoven on, and read Amanda Dudly’s best-selling novel Death Beacons the Wrong Man while sipping the coffee.  I had not done this for long.  In fact, for many years I was not able to spend a perfect day like this peacefully alone at home.  The anticipation was difficult to contain.

And then stupidly, perhaps it was a death wish, I told my wife while dispatching her to her work with a kiss, “I will feel lonely and bored without you around.”

I don’t know whether she already knew that I would say this.  She seemed well prepared.  Before I knew what hit me, she had put a shopping list in my hand and informed me that there was a very good sale going on in Metro Town.  And here I was searching for the items in the list in the never-ending labyrinth of isles in the Shopper’s Paradise, a task which I found even difficult than spotting the killer amongst the crowd of Brazilian carnival—which, by the way, Amanda Dudly’s detective Sharpilo successfully did in, what else, Brazilian Carnival.   I was really tired by now.  From morning I was hopping on and off one bus to another.  I must have travelled more than the distance between the sun and the earth by now.  The list of Christmas shopping was of the same length and yet only half done.

It took me two more hours to complete the list.  I had checked the list twice.  Nothing was left.  All the things which were advertised at throwaway prices, as door crashers, and special bargains, had gone off the shelf.  Only regular sale price items were available. I always wondered whether they really put those door crashers on the shelves. I also suspected that before announcing sales supermarkets hiked the prices and then offered a discount so that you still paid the same, if not more.  And in the bargain, you bought many other items which you never needed.  These items, also with hiked up prices, were cunningly placed near the items on sale.  My wife never agreed with these elementary observations of mine.

I was dead tired and bored.  It was unfair to send a middle-aged husband for shopping.  It is very easy to say, “Buy some yoghurt and ice cream,” but you must know what type and flavour your family use daily.  Then you must somehow already know in which particular supermarket which thing is in which aisle.  I must have made so many rounds of the same aisles that I would be a constant presence in the surveillance video of the store.  If they really monitor them round the clock, very soon some security personnel would come and question me about my wanderings, which were as laborious as Odysseus’.  But I knew that to fail my wife in such a simple errand would be disastrous.  I, therefore, kept on doggedly and now I was feeling like a tired donkey with still a load to carry.

The supermarkets were full of Christmas shoppers.  The shops were decorated with lights, balloons, and flowers.  Every supermarket had its Santa, which was busy entertaining children.  Teenagers were busy buying expensive brand name items for gifts.  At such times, I always have a lingering suspicion whether all festivals were invented by shrewd business owners.  They were the most benefited ones from the shopping spree accompanying every festival.  How much money people have!  There were not many middle-aged shoppers like me.  Some of them seemed expert shoppers.  Perhaps they were single.  I had nothing against them.  But I was sure some were happily married, yet they chose to excel themselves in the art of shopping!  These were the traitors who had made life so unbearable for married men like me.  I was tired of my wife’s nagging, ‘Mr White does all the shopping for the household.’  ‘Mr Black is an expert cook.’  ‘Mr Brown works from home and does all the household chores as well.  How lucky are these women!’  I am a peaceful man, but on such occasions, I feel like throwing banana peels in such men’s path and see them slipping on them and falling on their smart asses.

These are the same men who tormented me also when they were students.  My mother was an expert in the comparative assessment.  I was good at the studies.  I was good at games.  But my mother was not satisfied. ‘See John, what a sweet boy.  He helps his mother with everything.  He does laundry and cleans his room himself.’   ‘Mrs Pingley was saying that her son serves her breakfast in the bed every Saturday and Sunday.’  Now I see these Johns and Pingleys everywhere who do laundry and prepare breakfast and do the shopping for their wives.

I grudgingly admire Super Markets for placing items strategically near the exit counter.  They put chocolates and glossy magazines with screaming and tantalising headlines in such positions that shoppers like my wife would unconsciously grab them on their way out.  Yet, the same Super Market people never thought of the inherent contradiction, and inconvenience, in taking apples to the tenth floor of a high rise building from where the shopper would have to bring them again to the road level via stairs or escalators.  Well, I had to bring not only apples but nearly a carload of other items down.  I am an expert escalator traveller.  But I never tried it with so many bags.  Obviously, all this could not be balanced on a single step of the escalator and soon tumbled down.  Well, as Newton has proved, apples are especially susceptible to gravity.  He even gave his famous three laws of motion to describe how apples would run down an escalator under gravity.  They did accelerate, followed by other shopping bags.  The famous scene from the screen version of Amanda Dudly’s Chasing a Murderer flashed before my eyes where the murderer, closely followed by the hero, runs down the airport escalator pushing down passengers and their baggage.  There were some little school girls ahead of me who ran after the apples and collected those for a very red-faced me.  I am very happy to note and appreciative of the concerned authorities that most of our SkyTrain stations are handicapped friendly.  But they have paid little attention to the convenience of the shoppers.  I had great difficulty in negotiating through the revolving entrance of the station with my battered shopping bags.  Ultimately, I, somehow, made through all the pitfalls and perils.

Now I was returning from the Metro Town to downtown Vancouver, by the SkyTrain.  From downtown, I would take SeaBus to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, where my car was parked.  From there, my home in West Van was hardly a drive of ten minutes.  I always avoided rush hour traffic on Lions Gate Bridge.  So, instead of driving down to downtown and park there, I drove to North Vancouver SeaBus station.

At Joyce, a man of nearly my age boarded the bus.  He somehow looked familiar in a vague sense.  It was not his face, which was familiar.  But I felt as if I had read a book, and now I was seeing a film based on the same.  The man’s life history was indelibly imprinted on my brain. I felt like detective Sharpilo who has just solved the mystery of serial murders. He knows the victims are connected with a terrible past secret, and now the criminal is on the move to kill the last person in the chain. Unfortunately, he bumps into detective Sharpilo.

Mr Brown is tall and lanky. He has an eagle nose as if specially made to support the specks.

The man comes and sits beside me.  I give him a searching look.  Yes, there are abundant clues.  Snatches of memories come to my mind, one after the other.  Let me try.

“Hello, Mr Brown!  How are you?”

“Oh! Vine.”  He tries to discourage me.

Mr Brown never uses the four-letter word.  Why?  Because he cannot pronounce ‘f’; he pronounces it like ‘v’.

I know what must be going through his mind.  Who is this fellow?  How does he know my name?  He must be cursing his bad memory.  He might have already searched the database of his friends and relatives.  This has happened to me also many times.  I have met ‘friends’ whom I did not recognise.  It is quite frequent for me to meet people whose name I cannot recall.  I must say that I extricate myself very well from such situations.  Sometimes, I spend the whole evening with such people without letting them know I don’t have the foggiest idea who they were.  My wife’s friends keep on complaining to her I did not recognise them on the road or at a party.  Well, I do recognise them vaguely, but I don’t recall whether the one I was meeting was Mrs Hall or Mrs Wembley or Miss Jennifer. Such misunderstandings could create terrible situations as, going by the jacket description of Death Beacons the Wrong Man, the hired assassin did by murdering the wrong person.

Once I thought I had recognised a friend in the crowd.

I exulted, “Hi, Bill!” and gave the poor fellow a high five.

He responded.  But said, “I am not Bill, and I don’t think I have met you.”

“Well, that’s very fortunate.  I would have been very much embarrassed to have done this to a stranger who knew me.  He could tell it to all my friends.  Well, you know what I mean.”

I added, “I am sorry for the mistake.  You resemble very much one of my friends.”

Mr Brown was trying to look straight. Unfortunately for him, directly opposite him was sitting a somewhat self-conscious lady.  Mr Brown lowered his gaze.

“How is Mrs Rose Brown?  Congratulations on her getting a promotion.  I am sorry that she slipped on the snow and sprained her ankle.”

“Well, thank you.  Now she is O.K.  I hope eh…your wife is also keeping well.”

O.K. So he is trying to find out my name!

“It has been snowing heavily since last week. It will be a real white Christmas this year.  I see you are already on the shopping spree.”

Clever move.  First the neutral subject and then the obvious one.  He is stalling for time.  But we have enough time.  I even know where he is going (as detective Sharpilo knew where the murderer was headed to for murdering the last person in the chain).  He is going to the downtown branch of VanCity at Pender and Cordova.  He is developing some software for them.  Bank and Credit Unions are his best clients.  We had just left the Science World/Main Street station and were passing through the VanCity Headquarters building.  ‘Passing through’ in the literal sense, because it really passes through over the ground floor and under nearly ten stories of the building.  Just after this, the SkyTrain takes nearly a semi-circle curve.  This is the best portion of the journey.  From here, the whole downtown is visible with its high-rise buildings.  I recalled that Mr Brown’s children were in real estate.

I ask, “How are Lucy and Brad?  There is a boom in real estate.  I hope they are making a real killing.  Have they sold all the flats at False Creek Tower?  How is Brad’s daughter Serina doing?”

“Oh yes, the real estate market is doing very vine.  Lucy is shivting to a house of her own.   Brad is planning to move nearer to his ovvice.  But the more they earn, the more they are spending.  These children of plenty will never learn the virtues of saving.  Brad’s wive has already bought a new sports car.  How is your son?”

A clever question.  He has left the question deliberately vague.  He doesn’t know whether my son is studying or doing business.  Unfortunately, I have only one daughter.  But I will not contradict.

I had landed myself too in a greater mess asking questions one too many.  I had just married then.  This young, handsome man in a tuxedo meets me at the Waterfront Hotel.  He talks familiarly and somewhat deferentially.  I vaguely recall associating the gentleman with a beautiful sister who is somehow quite near to our family.

Stupidly, I ask, “How is your sister?”

He replies, “You must know better.  She is your wife!”

Man to man, I had expected him not to tell his sister.  But he told her!  He couldn’t wait for even a couple of hours.  He telephones his sister from Waterfront Hotel itself to tell her what had passed between us.  I hate smart alecks!

“Next station, Granville,” the microphones announce.  I jerk myself to the present.

I reply, “He is doing fine.  I understand that you design excellent websites. As for me, I am totally illiterate as far as computers are concerned.”

“There is nothing to be avraid of computers.  Nowadays the programs are very user-vriendly.  Making websites is like writing stories for children.  I consider the web browsers, not the sovtware but the persons who browse the web, as little children with brief attention span.  I try to give them attention-grabbing material.  I don’t expect them to be very literate, so I don’t give them much to read.  Even iv I have to make them read, I give the reading in chunks.  They like my work.  I write programs vor many ov the major companies ov the world, like McCoy, Sam and Hill, and Gregson.  Lately, I am concentrating on banks only.  There is a constant demand vrom them.  All of them pay well.  Only the deadlines are strict, very strict.”

Rose is a computer widow.  Her husband works late at nights.  She says that before his work grew, she had to feign sleep or a headache. Now she doesn’t have to.  They make love hardly once a week.  Sam likes to make it in the mornings.  And on those days she invariably gets late for office.

A long-ago read joke is at the tip of my tongue:

“Once a man returning home very late in the night, hears a voice, ‘I am a princess.  Please rescue me.’

The man looks around and, indeed, as in fairy tales, finds a frog near his feet.

The frog says again, ‘A wicked witch turned me into a frog.  Please kiss me and turn me into a beautiful princess.  I will always remain with you as your faithful wife.’

The man picks up the frog and puts it into his coat pocket.

The frog says again, ‘Believe me.  I am really a very beautiful princess.  Please kiss me.’

The man lets the frog remain in the pocket and says, ‘I have no time for a beautiful wife, but a talking frog would be fun.  I am a computer programmer.’”

But I had nothing against Mr Brown. I suspected that he would have heard all such jokes and some more. I also realised that such jokes were best appreciated when no representative of the targeted profession was present.

It was really unfair that nobody criticised whatever programmers wrote. We writers also burn the midnight lamp, but nobody appreciates us. Everybody thinks that they are better qualified to criticise our creation than we writers who create them. They would even say, “One need not be a hen to appreciate the omelette.” My wife herself considered my writing (and reading) a waste of time. Just to insult me, once she argued that book production was the main cause for the cutting of trees and environmental disaster!

Burrard Street station is coming.  There is not much time.  What subject should I broach now?  Should I discuss his love life?  That would be too much for him to take.  But if I don’t change the subject to some mutual-interest thing, he will go on with his computer jargon. Oh, yes, he used to play tennis.  I may talk about tennis hours.  Let me try.

“Sam, (he winced a little.  Maybe he is thinking how this fellow knows even my first name while I could not even place him.) do you still (I deliberately emphasise still to confuse him) play tennis?

And so we talked about tennis till he alighted from the SkyTrain.  We had become sort of friends.  He, of course, still not knowing my name.  He must be cursing his memory.  I would too if I were in his place.

To be frank, I felt pity for him.  I thought of introducing myself.  But then I realised that it would implicate at least two other persons.  So I kept quiet.  Let it be my revenge for his being the ideal husband.  He did all the shopping, household chores, and was always at home.  I had no problem with his doing all this.  But then it created problems for me at home.

Poor Mr Brown.  He never knew that Mrs Brown and Mrs Hearty (yes, your humble servant’s wife) worked in the same office. While Mrs Brown (maybe my wife too) took home to office, Mrs Hearty (apparently not Mrs Brown) brought the office to home for my benefit and reform.


Pradeep Gusain

The author is a former Diplomat. He served in Antananarivo (Madagascar), Kampala (Uganda), Toronto (Canada), Kabul (Afghanistan), Vancouver (Canada), and Georgetown (Guyana). Books: WE THE PEOPLE OF BHARAT (Non-Fiction): Self-published by III Millennium Inc. ENTANGLED SOULS (Long Love Poem): Published by Invincible Publishers. BE HAPPY! (Non-Fiction): Unpublished. ENTANGLED LOVE (Short-Story Collection): Unpublished. The author has won National Award (First Prize) in an Essay Competition.

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