Friday, June 05, 2009

Short story


The end had to come swiftly and abruptly. The first signs were very clear - an unnatural turbulence - the kind that one typically experiences at lower altitudes - but this was happening at 39,000 feet. The captain had ordered that the flight attendants stop distributing food and head back to their assigned locations. When Anthony Thomas decided that he will need to hold onto his gold plated eyeglasses lest they fall off the starched white shirt pockets, he began to think that something was going disastrously wrong. Outside, the world seemed to have turned in on itself. Clear bright flashes of lightning helped momentarily define the 747’s gleaming lines. If the lightning was sporadic the rain were anything but, coming down at constantly shifting angles the water seemed like some surreal liquid wall continuously directed against what suddenly seemed now like very flimsy window panes. For a while, Anthony imagined (and as strange as it might seem) that he could actually hear the rain and the thunder above the background engine noise, but before he decided to apply his engineers training to the problem he found that the giant plane was now yawing back and forth like a sailboat in choppy waters. He steadied his neighbor - a middle aged lady with horn rimmed glasses and piercing black eyes who had earlier told him with a curt voice that she did not need help with unfastening the stubborn food tray that did not seem to budge even after repeated trials. Of course, that was when the world was a different one, albeit a couple of hours ago – when the most exciting thing that one could look forward to on this nine hour flight from Rio was wondering if the grilled lamb chops might be undercooked or just plain rubbery. She seemed to be more grateful in accepting his entreaties this time around. At about this time, Anthony heard what he might have described as the loudest sound he had ever heard, and that thought coming from a man who led a life as a Shell consultant amongst oil platforms and derricks was quite a milestone. The next few seconds were incomparably quick with events layered one upon another. Amidst the incessant lightning and the rain there seemed to be a strange high pitched noise – the sound of air rapidly escaping from inside the metal tube presumably from a window blown out by a direct lightning strike or from a hole in the fuselage, the screaming of the passengers as they realized what was actually happening, the children helplessly crying at their loudest pitch, the otherwise incomprehensible scene of oxygen masks dropping from their cleverly disguised overhead compartments and dangling above an incoherent audience like some antediluvian Southern stringing and above all, the roar of the rains that seemed to add to the ever increasing confusion. Nobody seemed to notice the black cumulonimbus clouds build up in front of the plane like a thick solid wall many miles in circumference. In the second or two that passed during these events, 46 year old Anthony found himself to be surprisingly agile in reaching out and putting that mask around his head. He did not seem to care if anyone else got a hold of that mask, but he did successfully take three large lungfulls of sterile cold air that seemed to be coming without impediment from the constrictive mask like apparatus. In his hurry he did not look at his neighbor – there was no need to - for over the next couple of seconds another remarkable chain of events seemed to unfold – unplanned but happening in a deadly sequence that seemed to be beyond ones control or rational thought. A bolt of lightning seemed to crash into the upper areas of the airplane firstly illuminating just about everything around them with the clear cold precision that pure white light offers and secondly the bolt came with a deafening clangor so loud that Anthony could not really hear anything after that – or was that right, did he really not hear or was everything actually quiet? Yes, everything did seem to be quiet – but then, that was impossible - at least the engines should be running and the resultant hum of those giant General Electric jet engines should be heard above the chaos that seemed to be rapidly engulfing the aircraft. The lightning seemed to have taken out the electrical system and slowly Anthony realized that he was staring into pitch blackness with the aircraft apparently gliding without any discernable power system to steer the giant jetliner. It is remarkable how one does not hear the cries of fellow human beings when one is near a perceived end point or when one knows that some end point seems to be rapidly descending upon their being. It was finally peaceful. The cries seemed to have stopped, the aircraft seemed to be slowly breaking up, the wingtips were no longer there, the giant engines slowly falling apart; he could see the sky above, feel the rain, large bullets of thick cold water droplets cascading over his starched white shirt and Tyrolienne trousers; the cold, the piercing cold seemed to strangely strike a new sense of calm in him. He seemed like he was floating serenely for some reason whilst he felt that his neighbor was no longer close to him yet he seemed to clearly hear her screaming at the top of her voice – albeit from a far off distance. Was he hallucinating? No, it can’t be. The suitcases, diapers, glossy magazines, felt and trim panel composites seemed to dancing amongst the countless other debris that seemed to magically present themselves in front of Anthony. He looked around himself and started to pray – slowly, quietly and yes, sincerely for the first time in his life.

It was hard to hear her clearly on the phone because their children were whooping with joy in the background. They would talk to each other every couple of days. It had been over six months since he had last seen his wife but he could picture the scene clearly. The children on the trampoline creating a general ruckus, Sally Thomas sitting under the dark green backyard awning with her tall glass of ginger laced iced tea, the neighbors a constant but unnecessary reminder of the constraints of living in the largest borough of Greater London and the rays of the summer sun filtering through the sturdy pine in their backyard. Their talks would cover a variety of topics sufficiently dispersed to give both parties the illusion that even if they were over 4000 miles away, they were very much present in each others lives. He still made an effort to remember mundane details like the Bromley garbage collections times and her vitamin supplements while she remembered to ask about his housekeeper’s only child and that annoying corn on his little toe that seemed to be a bother every time he had to put on his work shoes. Every once in a while during these conversations, he would picture her as he saw her 16 years ago – a petite, pale skinned woman with black hair that fell in tresses just above her shoulders. He had once told her that the color of her eyes matched the color of her hair and as she would grow older only one of them will retain its former hue. And yes, she wore knee length plaid skirts. For some reason he always pictured her in plaid. Of course, he still could not understand if it were her smile that gave her face that little schoolgirl look or was it the smallish features of her nose and mouth that accentuated her smile and made her look much younger than she really was. Either way, he was smitten the first time they had met at an engineering seminar just outside the Financial District. About a month after meeting her, he decided to terminate a couple of part time relationships he was having with women at his workplace. It was really not going anywhere although he had wryly decided that the sex was worth the time spent in the bars and their untidy little apartments. Sally and Anthony were married in a year’s time and she decided to give up her lucrative engineering design job after she was pregnant five years later. During those initial years, his job included somewhat infrequent travel to the various locations of Shell subsidiaries around the world and involved working with various teams to develop and troubleshoot sub-sea sensors used for future shallow water oil field discoveries. Of course, that changed during the great oil price spike as economies from China to Brazil were steaming up for large scale growth and infrastructural expansion. This necessitated that companies like Shell look to new fields and locations in its incessant quest to produce more of the black gold. It may not be a large stretch of logic to surmise that global changes would have intruded into the lives of Anthony and Sally Thomas. 

Over the last five years he was asked to take up additional responsibilities and live for extended periods of time in foreign locations. What initially seemed very romantic with Sally and the children periodically visiting him in Nigeria, the Philippines and north eastern Russia slowly turned into a chore that involved broken appointments with the Tinies childcare center at Bickley Park and jetlagged children who were not too sure how to adjust to the mosquitoes and the stray snake that one day had decided to present itself to the family in a small village in the outskirts of Manila. Eventually they decided that in the best interests of the children, Anthony would take the time out and come back home to visit his little brood rather than the other way around. The visits soon turned into a familiar pattern. The first three days involved multiple sessions of nothing but sex where they would tear at each others clothes and consummate their desires with little regard for physical intimacies. After the initial let up, he would start to discover the children, their needs and in his own guilty way give them more of himself. Breaks like these helped Anthony and Sally soften the crushing regularity of suburban lives mixed with the initially romantic but gradually stultifying routine involved in traveling and working between international time zones.

The human mind is not necessarily fickle, but given the right conditions, the mind may turn easily to suspicion and questioning. Long absences and unexplained events at the other end of that telephone line that one may not necessarily resonate with might under the right conditions act as catalysts in souring relationships. Sally was determined that this will not happen to them. In spite of Sally’s dogged efforts in this mission of keeping the bonds intact, every once in a while long distance relationships could get the better of the best couples and Sally and Anthony were no exception to this axiom either. During their last call, she said that she did not recognize a gentle whimpering in the background - almost sounded like a child in distress - and he seemed to gloss over the detail and talk about his upcoming surveying trip into the countryside. Or that other time when she seemed to think that there was someone else in the room with him and he seemed to be a little cagey about some of the answers during a late night conversation. More often than not, she seemed to dismiss these as mere fetishes of a mind that was craving for attention and the attendant stresses from adequately maintaining a long distance relationship. Not to mention all of the added details of the daycare and birthday parties.

This current posting in Rio de Janeiro was the longest thus far. The posting had its genesis from about nine years back specifically on January 18, 2000. It may best be described as a day that was not very environmentally glamorous for the country of Brazil. It had just experienced its most shocking, albeit not the biggest, oil spill incident; 1.3 million liters of fuel oil had spilled from a pipeline carrying the black viscous fluid into a swamp adjacent to the pristine waters of Guanabara Bay. Shell was called on to provide for expert assistance and the necessary consulting experience in deploying sensors over parts of the Bay in an effort to find out and quantify the severity of the spill, the exact depth of the plume and viscosity of the breakdown products. This naturally translated to Shell landing a contract for the cleanup and Anthony posted on a semi permanent basis in Rio de Janeiro over the last couple of years. He was to work with the government officials in monitoring the cleanup operations for eights months at a stretch followed by a two month ‘rest and relaxation’ back in Bromley. This also translated into incidental perks like a large colonial bungalow in the upscale Niterói city across the bay from Rio. A refurbished relic of the Spanish colonial days, the bungalow cunningly blended Iberian architecture evoking colonial rulers lording over the 'natives' (what might have then been a common word to describe the populace). The perks included a small army of local workers who maintained the premises, the gardens and kept the kitchens stocked with fresh food. And yes, the famous beach of Copacabana, Ipanema was only a short drive away.

The first time he had noticed her was when her mother was upstairs in the master bedroom cleaning the floors while she was down in the cellar arranging some of the cutlery that remained unused. Even if for the most part of the day she remained in the servant’s quarters that were built (almost like an afterthought) behind the bungalow’s main structure, she would venture forth with her mother on occasion to help her mother with the never ending household chores. Every Friday evening, they would catch a city bus back to the municipality of Paracambi, 90 kilometers away in the lush grasslands on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The last time her father had come to visit them, Anthony remembered the look of pride in his face over the fact that his wife was working at such a large hacienda and making enough money for the three of them to live comfortably in a stucco house just outside Paracambi. He was a pig farmer who would come to the city on occasion to sell his wares to the local abattoir. 

That afternoon as he crossed the cellar door and bolted it behind him, the only sound that seemed out of place was the rattling of cutlery as he easily held her down while kissing her meager unready breasts. She seemed more frightened and unsure than bearing the surprised demeanor of someone who had just been attacked. As his hands found their way up her underskirt she screamed out for her mother. It was pure coincidence that a silver fork lay just across the floor as her 14 year old body struggled against a man who was older than her father. She grabbed the fork with all her remaining strength and thrust it into Anthony’s side. The fork did not mortally hurt him but it served as enough of a diversion for her to wriggle loose and for him to loosen his grip on the child. He bellowed mostly in surprise and partly from the pain of the unexpected attack and shook her violently with a mixture of anger, fear and surprise before dropping her coldly to the ground. He decided to let her go but told her that if she breathed a word of this to anybody, her mother would lose her job and the family would be ashamed. She quickly made a dash for the door, unbolted it and ran out into the yard. Anthony did not see her for about a couple of weeks after the incident.

However, this was not the last of such invasions – in fact it was just the beginning. Another time it happened when she was playing in the gardens outside the bungalow and Anthony happened to be passing by. Yet another time, it happened when she was doing the laundry behind the servant’s quarters. Slowly the abuse became a pattern until the child slowly desensitized herself to his advances. Most of the time he would fondle her breasts and attempt to forcibly kiss her face as she struggled to run away. Once he was able to deftly get his hands under her clothes but he heard someone coming around in the other room and decided not to act in concert with his desires. The rape happened inside the servant’s quarters over a holiday weekend when most of the staff had gone to their homes whilst the cleaning lady and her daughter stayed back. They had decided to work this weekend and take an extended break of four days over the next week. Whether the events were pre planned by Anthony or they were just the right set of circumstances arraying themselves into a lucky coincidence, he was clearly looking to take advantage of any opportunity that could slake his dark hunger. Clearly, it seemed that this was the opportune moment - her mother was away in the markets, the servants had all gone back to their homes and Anthony was a little drunk - yes, it had to be now. After he had raped the little girl over and over, he felt satiated, man again. Alive. He used some of the blood stained bedsheets to cover her nakedness and made his way out of her quarters. It was about this time that he noticed her mother coming in, they looked at each other - a long hollow stare - and in that moment Anthony knew that she had known all along. She had known about the constant advances that Anthony had made, she had known about the various incidents from the chatter of the other servants, she had known about his roving eye for younger prepubescent girls.

In the analysis, one is not sure how some keep on living as if nothing was wrong in light of such monstrous injustices while others would fight to their deaths to have their honor restored or revenge exacted. Her mother apparently belonged to the former group. Of course, it could have been that her current position was the only well paying job that she could reliably find in a time of economic uncertainty or it might have been that she feared for her daughters life because her husband might have killed her over the resulting shame or that centuries of abuse under colonial masters made one inured to this form of abuse – after all, abusing another’s body is another form of abusing another’s land. One does not know the answers to these questions. What one knows is the fact that the lady and her daughter decided to stop working there after she learnt that her little girl was pregnant. This was about the time that Anthony Thomas’s eight month stint was coming to a close and he was looking forward to heading home. It should also be mentioned that Anthony decided to pay the cleaning lady $5000 for the ‘services’ offered. She took the money.

Anthony was a religious man and would attend the mass every Sunday at the nearby St. Joseph’s cathedral. It was a small church built back in the 1700’s when the Spanish were well in control of large parts of Argentina and it was one of the lucky few buildings that had escaped destruction during the great building boom of the 1970’s. Of course, it was wedged between two towering glossy high rises, but it managed to hold out on its own amidst the fast pace of change that Rio was slowly becoming accustomed to. The Father at St. Joseph’s cathedral was a kindly old man. He had come to the city from Mato Grasso 60 years back and was lucky to be given the post of an altar boy in this little cathedral. He had slowly risen through the ranks and was now considered one of the ‘old guard’ of Catholicism in Niterói. He was actually fond of people like Anthony (even if they did not know each other personally) and tried his best to cultivate foreigners who seemed to be regular church goers. Maybe it was his way of ensuring that people like Anthony would go back to their so called developed countries and begin to cultivate the practice of Sunday church going and Mass and in turn introduce this dying habit.

Anthony had decided that before he went back home this time, he was going to St. Thomas and actually confess to the Father. He was going to tell the Father every little personal crime, not just the recent irksome incident with this 14 year old girl, but the other details also. He believed that this confession would remove the terrible moral doubt and weight that he seemed to be lately carrying on his shoulders (ever since he found out that the little girl was pregnant). He now seemed to feel genuinely sorry, not just for the little girl in Rio but for that little girl in Vietnam (Shell was performing a pre study into the possibility of finding oil offshore in northern Vietnam a decade ago) whose family had sold her to him for a period of six months and who had performed dual roles of being a housekeeper and also functioned as a pliant albeit unwilling repository for Anthony’s desires – and yes she was only 11 or that little girl in China (where he was sent on a three month project) who developed a severe case of bleeding one night and the difficulty in getting the rural doctor to treat her. Yes, there were many of them. So many, that he was actually beginning to lose track. But enough of them that every time he saw a little girl, a strange warmth would spread across his loins and some long forgotten incident would rise to the top of his head. He had decided long ago that he could not control his desires, but this pregnancy was the last straw. Now the situation had changed somewhat - he had two little daughters and he knew of the problems involved in childbirth. Before this little girl was pregnant, he seemed to revel in his masculinity, in the effortless ways by which he could get his way with the girls, by force, coercion, money or sweet talk. But now he had had enough. This was it. He was going to go back to England, talking to his company directors about quitting his position, take up a smaller responsibility in one of the numerous engineering consultancies that had sprung up around London like threadbare nettles around his lawn and live a regular life like many of his classmates and guide his twins to become better citizens than him. He felt good. He felt free finally that he was making concrete plans for the future. He also made a promise to himself that he was going to confess to his wife about some mistakes made in the past and she should forgive him for it and not go into the details nor bring it up again. He planned an elaborate speech around this theme. He decided to take Sally out to a nice restaurant, talk to her slowly, atone, cry and then ask her forgiveness. Maybe, he could also give her a new diamond ring. Yes, what could be better than a giant stone to seal past infidelities? She would surely be OK with that. It has worked before on other unrelated circumstances – like the time he was caught with child pornography on his laptop - it should work with this one too. Yes, this might be the best thing to do. In addition, by asking the Father here for his forgiveness and detailing the account, he felt that he would be absolved of any ramification moral or religious.

The session with the Father went off without any major issues. The Father was genuinely shocked at the admission of guilt on the part of Anthony. At one point Anthony heard a long deep sigh and gentle weeping from the other side of the dark curtain as if the Father suddenly remembered something similar from his own past too. One could not conclusively say for sure. He told Anthony that the first step towards a transformation and eventual recovery was owning up to oneself and this Anthony had done commendably. The hardest part of the recovery was to actually stick to the path that Anthony had decided to choose. The Father also advised Anthony that he visit the church more often and every time he felt an urge to act on his impulses, he should think back upon the solemn promise made today and he must force himself to stop – however heart wrenching that might turn out to be. After the conversation, Anthony was surprised that the Father had not threatened to report him to the police. Anthony decided that this was his good luck and he was turning over a new leaf and the Gods that were purported to reside high above him must be happy with his actions.

The human body takes about two and a half minutes to fall from 39,000 feet to the ground. Individuals remain in full interaction with their faculties for the first 5-7 seconds. They then hallucinate for another couple of seconds and then rapidly lose consciousness as they start to fall and gain speed and lose altitude and ultimately reach terminal velocity – that maximum speed that a falling body attains as one is hurtling down towards the earth balanced by the forces of air friction. It has been reported that in rare cases, at about 15,000 feet the individual gains consciousness and start to breathe normally. If the individual regains consciousness and starts to breathe, there is plenty of time for further reflection in the approximately final one minute of free fall.

No comments: