The scent of lavender

- PRAJESH SJB RANA
She looked disheveled, tired and antsy as she invited me in. She spoke in terse phrases and spoke only when necessary. She was dressed in denim shorts and a plain grey t-shirt with a thin flowery jacket on top, something she’d just thrown on in response to the unexpected company. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days and her eyes were veiny red with deep dark circles underneath

Sep 9, 2018-And just like the wind, she disappeared. She stopped answering her phone, she stopped replying to my messages and she stopped sending me the literary letters she liked writing so much. She always thought that writers in the past wrote letters like that to each other; letters describing the weather, written in parables, in descriptions, in narratives. I always made fun of it and she joked along, but she always sent me those letters, handwritten in her neat cursive writing with the pages always scented in lavender hue. And although my mom soon got suspicious about those letters, I loved receiving them and I loved writing back to her. In the same style, in the same tone, although I always slipped up when it came to writing in her neat and inimitable style. Sometimes, the pages would be stained with soft circular stains from the bottom of a tea cup, and I would imagine her sitting by the window of her bookstore, drinking chamomile just like the writers of old, using a refillable ink pen to write her beautiful words. I always imagined her with her legs tucked in, her tea warm in between her hands, soft wisps rising from as she deliberated on what to write it.

She had never invited me to her bookstore and I had never asked. She had said that it was the only thing her parents had left her, a small house in a corner of Lazimpat that she had transformed into a bookstore. She bought used books, resold them and sold new ones as well. “I despise new books,” she had once said. “I like books that are old, you know, the ones that smell and sometimes you find them with their spines broken. I like books that have been scribbled and have dog ear marks on various pages. New books feel too sleek, too industrial; like they’ve just come out of the production line. I don’t even like the feel of their neat and crisp letters. They don’t have any character to them, you see.” Year after year, she filled her library with new and old books alike, and although business was slow, she didn’t bother and spent most of her time reading inside her little shop, often while sipping on chamomile tea.

After some considerable effort, I finally tracked down the store. It was a small two storied building inside narrow alleyways. Comprised of aging red bricks that had green tendrils of creepers running along the cracks, the store looked more like someone’s home than a book shop. Inside there were shelves full of books, with their spines turned outwards so that their titles may be seen from outside the two front windows. She didn’t even have a sign or a name for her store and the way her doors were built— the store didn’t feel inviting at all.

I rang the doorbell a couple times but after nothing came of it, I knocked on her door. The sound of my knuckles hitting the solid wood must have resonated inside the house because upon knocking a couple of times, she finally called out from the second floor window, without even bothering to look out. I told her it was me and the silence weighed heavy again. I stood outside her door for a couple of more minutes, pondering if she’d even let in me in, which she finally did after a while.

She looked disheveled, tired and antsy as she invited me in. She spoke in terse phrases and spoke only when necessary. She was dressed in denim shorts and a plain grey t-shirt with a thin flowery jacket on top, something she’d just thrown on in response to the unexpected company. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days and her eyes were veiny red with deep dark circles underneath. I said that I hadn’t heard from her in ages and I was worried. She didn’t reply. The inside of her house was dark, dusty and musty, light from the outside poured in like streams from the gaps in the curtains. She motioned for me to sit by a table in the corner of the room, the windows on the opposite end highlighting letters scattered across the surface with a thick, embellished wooden box carelessly thrown to the outer edge of the table. The smell of the musty books hung heavy inside the room and the towering shelves cast long daunting shadows. I sat on one edge of the table and waited for her to return.

She came back from the fridge with a chilled can of beer. She apologised for not responding to my messages and sat down beside me, collecting some of the stray letters, carefully collating them into a single pile and hiding them inside the ornate wooden box. We sat in silence for a while, looking out into the world outside and counting the uncountable specks of dust between us. She cracked the can open, took a sip and passed it to me. I did the same, the bitter taste gliding down my throat mixing with the uncomfortable feeling of showing up at a girl’s house uninvited. But just as I was starting to doubt my decision, she spoke.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been writing to you,” she said getting up and moving towards the other side of the table. A two storied side table was propped up against the wall with many record sleeves on the lower compartment and a turntable on the top. “I needed some time to myself. I needed time to think over something and not have my feelings pour into the letters I write to you.” She pulled out one deep black vinyl record from one of the sleeves and carefully placed it on the turntable, guiding the head on its grooves. After a few pops and cracks, the record started to play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits.

“I’ve always liked exploring my father’s record collection,” she said, “some of my favourite music I’ve discovered from these old records he used to listen to. I listen to these songs and I wonder what it would have been like if he’d actually been here. Would we be sitting on the carpet on a sunny day, with many of these records out, listening to music while he talked about why he liked some and why didn’t like the others? Would he introduce me to the band members, the people behind the music and their style?” She walked over to her seat and fished out a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket. She lit one and as the white smoke from the burning stick hovered above us, she drifted outside for a bit.

“You know I liked writing to you because my mother always wrote to me on my birthday,” she said after a while, shifting her feet underneath the table. “She always sent me these letters, one a year, always on my birthday and I couldn’t even write back because she never sent it with a returning address, like she didn’t even care if I got it. I got these strange letters where she told me she loved me and she always thought of me but she never dropped by or asked me how I was doing.” She grabbed the wooden box and clutched it hard.

“But it was all I had. I cherished them. I kept all of them, inside this box and whenever I felt lonely, I’d go back and read them, one by one. That’s when the urge to write back to her would hit me and I’d write to you. But you were different… you wrote back,” she took a strong drag from her cigarette and I took another long sip from the can. “The first time you wrote back, it felt strange, it felt alien. I didn’t know what to write back, I didn’t know how. I kept thinking about it for days until I finally started writing back to you like writers of old, you know? It felt so strange to be loved in return, something I hadn’t felt in a long time.”

She took off her slippers and sat cross legged on top of her chair. I would come aware of the music during the lulls in our conversation. Then, without even looking at me, intently gazing at the empty street outside, she said, “You know, I don’t know what I expected. My birthday was a month ago and I waited. I waited with all my heart, with anxiety for the next letter from my mother to arrive, I looked outside every day, asked the mailman, but the letter didn’t come. Maybe it got lost in the mail, I thought, maybe someone took it from my mailbox, maybe she mailed it to the wrong address, after all she is getting old.” She grabbed the can of beer and took a significant gulp. “But then as the days passed by, I started thinking about how love was never really meant for me, you know. In between all of these random thoughts of love, loneliness and anger, I remembered a time in middle school. My father had sent me off to a boarding school and during visiting day, I waited in the dormitory for my father to arrive. And I still vividly remember just how lonely that room had felt and how cold it was. Happiness seemed to permeate all of outside and yet all I felt was the void, emptiness inside. After I was certain that my father wasn’t coming, I took a piece of glass that had broken off from a nearby window and carved a gash on the side of my stomach,” she pulled up her t-shirt to reveal an inch-long scar tissue. “After I started bleeding out, everyone came in to look at me, parents of people I didn’t even know carried me to the nursing station and many of my friends stood by me as the nurse dressed my wound. That was the only time I truly felt loved, you know.” Her voice trailed and she vacantly looked towards the wooden box, contemplating something.

“I guess everyone longs to be loved, even if it’s a twisted kind of love,” she said after a while. “After my father died, he left me everything he had. The house, the books, the music, everything he loved more than me. After him, I started finding love in everything he did, I started looking for lovers in books, in music and the illegible words my mother wrote to me, every single year. And now that I’ve lost that too, what is there to love?”

I stayed with her that night. The sounds of gentle muffled sobs echoing through an empty house populated by thousands pages of words and notions of forlorn love in worlds vastly different than ours. “Sometimes love is the pain running through your body, sometimes it’s a piece of dressing soaking up your life and sometimes it’s just some letters, put together more out of necessity than choice,” she had said. I thought about those words that night, and how love, like a cup of tea, gains color the more you let it sit.

She wrote to me often after that day, of course in her trade mark handwriting, wrote to me about the flowers in her garden, about a stray dog who has become a regular visitor to her house and about the changing of the seasons. And I wrote back to her every time, but I never went back. I stood outside her house, fighting the urge to knock, but I never did. Every time I went, I dropped a letter into her mailbox and walked away in silence, the wind carrying the scent of lavender.

Published: 09-09-2018 07:46

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