Not so long ago – in a distant land, no more mysterious or enchanting than any other – when a sudden gush of wind knocked the paperweight off and flung the curtains to sail, she died. While she was still writhing on the cold cement floor beside the tattered mattress, a sheet rose from the cluttered table towards the cracks on the ceiling. Another got slapped midway by a surge, and pasted its typed face to the wall, waiting to fall off when the wind gave way. As the only painting on the wall – or a bad vignette copy – crashed to the floor, the smile that has been eluding centuries did not twitch a bit. Below the skewed clock – that had never kept track of time since its pendulum gave up years ago – discarded paper balls rustled on the table among the dusty pile of old newspapers and fluttering aluminum foils from the previous week’s dinner. The paperweight stopped rolling on the bent plywood surface after clinking against the penholder-cum-ashtray, and thudded at the base of the typewriter where the third sheet was trapped. When the growing corners of the vignette swallowed the centre– when she finally embraced the darkness – she was too far gone to think beyond pain. She was a no one, still.
“No one is a no one!” – bellowed the impatient commissioner, stubbing his cigarette in the bronze ashtray. “Obviously she was an aspiring writer. Failure; frustration; depression and derangement; suicide. Period. Now find out her goddamn identity and close the case. Evidently, she was living in the flat for a while; threaten the other tenants, find out the building owner. She couldn’t have fallen from the damned sky!” – he banged his fist on his polished palm wood table, the tea slopped over the edge of the glass onto the transparent plastic pouch that held three typed sheets.
“Turn everything inside out”, the commissioner swung around and got up from his black leather chair. “How hard is it to find leads in a one room flat? And what’s with all the books covered in newspaper?” – echoed his voice in his dark smoky office as he enlarged a picture of a bookrack on his computer screen. What looked like cement crumbs, probably from the ceiling, were caught in the cobweb on the topmost layer of books. “I want this case shut in a week!” He clunked the receiver down, exasperated, and sank into his chair again downing his cold tea in a gulp, as the leather seat let out faint whistling puff under his weight.
He wiped the drops of tea off the plastic pouch with his palm, and rubbed the resulting droplets until there was nothing but a translucent smudge. He stared at the first sheet inside, read the title, smirked. His silent cell phone vibrated with long successive groans against the hard bound planner. Swiftly shoving the forensic evidence away, he checked his wrist watch out of habit while he took the call.
“Hello, sweetheart”, he answered in his soft charming voice, resting both his elbows on the table, to lean ahead, and absently aligning the edge of the table-calendar with the keyboard and the wrapped gift, “I’ll be there in an hour”.
The clanking cutlery and the low pitch murmuring rumble throughout the restaurant was a relief after the half an hour long saxophone overkill, the columnist thought. She had been coming to this restaurant with her husband since the time they had started dating in college. He loved this place for what he called the most sensational music performances in the city. She loved the exquisite seafood more than the music. She was never into jazz music, unlike her husband who could have made a career as a bassist, but had chosen to join the police force instead.
Out of habit, quite absentmindedly, she smoothed the crease on the white table cloth along the round edge of the table, and straightened the flowers in the vase. She glanced at the door from her usual table, as the waiter approached to take away her empty glass.
“Anything else, ma’am? There’s your favourite prawn delicacy on today’s special”, went the waiter with a well-rehearsed smile.
Checking the time on her phone, she returned the smile. “Could you just get me another Bloody Mary please?” she asked, “I’ll order dinner in a while”.
On their tenth anniversary, unlike the previous years, they had decided to keep the evening to themselves. Sitting here, she was reminded of their first date; and the look of embarrassment on his much younger face, when he had got detained by his bossy band members that day. She knew that he would be on time today, as he was mostly; but she decided to turn up at the restaurant early just to cherish the childish joy of waiting for him.
She began going through the notes saved on her phone, as she thanked the waiter when he placed her drink almost exactly where the last chilled glass had left its mark. Editing the saved points on her notes was a ritual she followed every few days; she would finally complete her book soon. She had been waiting for a while now. To be recognised as someone more than a columnist, to those who read her columns just because it was obligatory to know the commissioner’s wife.
The clamour from the kitchen, as a waiter swung open the door, broke the trail of her thoughts; followed by the din that floated into the restaurant as a customer entered. As the noise died, she went back to her phone screen again. Not to her notes; this time, a story. She had seen the picture of the three pages – forensic samples of a suicide case, he had said – on his laptop last night while he was checking his mail. The interesting title on the first of the three pages had caught her eye, and she copied the pages to her phone to read later. That years from now this story would find a place in her bestseller – attributed to an anonymous writer – was unknown to her as she read. She took a sip of her second drink, wishing that there was a coaster like that on the glass slab of the desk in her study, and began reading.
Long ago – in a distant land, as mysterious and enchanting as in the fairy tales – when a pleasant sea breeze had sprayed her face with the moist softness, she knew she was living again. While the doctors faraway were busy ringing their cold scissors and scalpels, she was staring at the blue sky, far beyond the ceiling. When the blinding light sprang to life above her head, the mirror between the bulbs flashed for a moment as her eyes squinted shut.
Her dressing table was no more on the beach, as it had been for a while among the synthetic boulders and ornate palm trees. It was dancing on the waves. Not on the rolling crests where the idols and garlands surf; deeper into the sea. The wind was what roared there, not the breakers crashing on the shore. She need not see herself in the mirror enclosed by the glowing bulbs; she needed no reassurance. Out of instinct, she stopped the eyeliner pencil from rolling off the cluttered table. Why was it still on her table, she wondered…
A couple of years back, when she had left her shabby town for this fairy tale city, she had barely known what lay ahead. The city had seemed anything but a fairy tale when she had reached; fearfully vast; sublime like the sea. Stranded on the road, in a yellow and black cab, she had been quite scared, in fact, to end up in the chaos that day for some uncanny train bombing. An apartment for rent in the labyrinth of indefinite leases had been out of the question. Even her interviews, portfolio shooting and auditions had gone haywire without the reference from her local friend, whose flat she used to share. The mask of an immigrant took ages to be scraped off.
She scratched her forehead, it always used to itch after threading the eyebrows; she had been postponing her permanent hair removal treatment for months now. She would ask the doctors if she could leave for a day after this show on the waves…
Centuries ago another city had witnessed the proliferation of masks through the year. Some believed that the carnival had broken the bounds of calendars and maps. Some, like her, had picked masks to rise; some to blend in; few with deception in mind; others out of shameful pangs. Many masks covered the faces beneath; many were ripped off to restore another. In her city though, most masks were thrust upon the occupants. Masks of insiders; masks of outsiders. For her, perhaps it was convenient to be an outsider. Especially in a city which had once longed to be detached from the state. Convenient to shrug a reluctant shoulder at the anxiety of the middle class trapped between the homeless and the celebrities. Convenient to keep the resonant communal riots and the gang wars at a distance. Convenient to be blind to the victims of nasty bureaucracy, and under-the-table settlements. Convenient to make a film on slums, or to romanticise peopled buildings unrepaired for a century. More convenient, of course, to wear a mask of aloofness than to be indulgent.
If her shaved head in the last show had left the world awestruck, then this show would stun the media. Her palms felt the patchwork on the dress she was wearing and then lightly touched the smooth dents on her face where her eyes used to be…
While she had not done anything for the city, she had at least refrained from the hypocritical complaints about her own condition, the likes of which immigrants often use as alibis. She had accepted her fairy tale city with its imperfections, much before it would devise its own way to accept her. Once acclimatised to the pace of the city, it had not been surprising to her to be able to catapult from a no one to someone within months. However, the nightmarish mask which became her face since, made her wish for her older one.
She groped for a brush on the table, and in the process dropped a few phials into the sea below. She found it and began brushing her lips vigorously. Not much time left before her cue. She rubbed her lips out; and still kept rubbing the seamless mound – that now substituted her mouth – to ensure that no opening was left…
Exhausted from one of the usual failed auditions, she had decided to join her friend for an evening snack from the popular cart that stood every evening before the closed rusty collapsible gate sandwiched by the saloon and the free clinic. They had bought the snacks and walked through the jostling flower market – it was their tradition to pack the snack away from the muggy lanes and walk towards the gateway, sit facing the sea breeze among the thousands of tourists, and enjoy their street bite. She had met him there that day; stopping his sedan oblivious of the honks behind, he had opened the door, recognising her from one of the auditions. The ride with the most successful designer in the league had begun at this historic archway. Soon she had made it to the covers of the top journals. A whopping success and a penthouse later she had stopped her sports car to terminate her scandalous affair at this same yellow frontier.
As the swelling wave raised her green room, she could almost hear the cameras wildly crunching. She never understood why the cameras are said to ‘click’ like pen caps or switches; to her a shutter always ‘crunched’ like an apple bite. She gently pushed in the tip of her nose with her thumb till it was levelled with the cheeks…
The ramps had never been the same again. From the one who dated the top-notch to the one disgraced, her tables had turned overnight. Nonetheless, branded permanently with the scandal, she had never been in dearth of ramps. Lesser known designers had climbed to fame, as she had kept maintaining her place on the page-three columns. Her friend had been supportive, and some of her cherished days used to be with her walking with their snack towards the sea. She also enjoyed the profound silence that her friend let her be immersed in, while walking back from the ramshackle of a movie theatre, having watched that same movie that the theatre had been constantly playing for almost a decade. Of course, she had to cover her face with a stole and large sunglasses on the street – the gaze was very different from that on the ramp. She had walked on.
She was ready to walk. She amused herself at the thought of how she used to spend hours painting her face; now there was no hair, no eyes, no brows, no nose, no lips left to paint. She had erased them all. When her city kept swinging back and forth between its two names, she too could switch back to her mask of a no one…
Like her city, she was abundant with possibilities; blending stardom and scandals in chorus with the sustained baritone of struggle. When the electroconvulsive therapies failed, her doctors considered the possibilities of surgery. Her breath-taking last show was over; she lay on the operation table and remembered the portrait on the tattered magazine cover that she had treasured for years – how could a smile reveal and conceal so much, she always wondered. When the anaesthetic mask covered her mouth – when she finally embraced the nothingness – she was too far gone to feel any pain. She was a no one, again.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?” – asked the commissioner, pushing his plate away and removing his napkin from his lap.
“I’m fine.” The columnist replied without looking up from the ice cubes she had been twirling in her glass.
“You are so distant through the entire evening. If it’s not about your book, then what is it?” He signalled the waiter for the bill.
“Nothing.” She wiped her hands and kept the unopened gift in her purse.
“You’re lost somewhere.” He whispered, worrying a bit now.
“I am not.” She gave him a wry smile.
He knew he should not pursue it further; she needed her space. They left the restaurant. While driving back, she asked from the steering, “Are you sure the lady was psychotic?”
“Who?!” He was taken aback, staring at her sideways for a moment. “Oh, that suicide victim? Yeah, yeah, she was struggling as a writer it seems. Did you read the pages you took from me yesterday?” He went back indifferently to his time-table in his planner.
“How did she kill herself?”
“Splashed acid on her face.”