Checkmated

The third short story submitted to the TOI Write India competition. For the other stories click here

Author Prompt

She willed herself to not check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous.

And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.

But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?” by Preeti Shenoy (For more about the contest/rules click here)

Checkmated

Stuti switched on the landing light and let herself in. Soumesh wasn’t home – the stillness told her that. Besides, after 30 years of marriage, Stuti could sense his presence before she could see him. Where could he be? He hated going out and even if he had to, she had to make arrangements, remind him, nag him…

Stuti dumped her purse and lunch bag on the dining table. She walked through the house, switching on lights, checking. Finally, she knocked hesitantly on his studio door – his sanctuary, which he guarded jealously. It was his private space, his world where he created – painting, sculpture, whatever struck his fancy. Nobody was allowed in, not even her, without his explicit permission. Not even to clean it. Once in a while, Stuti would throw a major tantrum. He would then ungraciously allow her to clean up all the while hounding her, “Don’t touch that,” or “it’s meant to be like that,” and even, “use a wet cloth but don’t look at it.”

Stuti had laughed. “Why don’t you clean it yourself?”

“But why should I? I am fine with the nonexistent dust.” He raised an eyebrow. “You are the one obsessing. My studio is air tight, sound proof, there is no scope for any dust.”

“This is Delhi my dear artist, if you have air to breathe, it is dusty.” Stuti countered.

“Yeah right.” Soumesh flicked her nose. “You know what my theory is?”

“What?”

“Dusting is an excuse to enter my private space. A way of getting back at me for banning your entry here.”

Stuti knocked again loudly. There was no response. She pushed at the door and it yielded under pressure from her hand – her breath caught in her throat – had something happened to him? After all he was no longer in the prime of his youth – neither of them were.

Finished and half-finished works of art dotted the room. Stuti carefully traversed the room, looking for him under the table, behind the curtain (he was quite capable of hiding just to give her a scare, a punishment for daring to enter his studio) but then there was no sign of him. Where could he be?

Stuti paused in front of a covered easel – the brush on the palette, thick with black paint, was still wet. Hesitating and mentally apologizing to Soumesh for intruding, she picked up the cover. She stared.

A grotesque black painted face stared right back at her with its red tongue sticking out. Over the face, he had left a curt sticky note ‘Going out for few days.’ There was another note on the right hand corner –‘Aha peeking without my permission I see.’

Stuti’s shook her head. She looked around carefully – if she knew him, there would be another note for her – yes, it was stuck behind the door.

‘Didn’t check the note on the easel? I am missing and you don’t even look properly?’

Stuti couldn’t help laughing. She could never win with him –damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Stuti hummed as she shut the door behind her. This was a first, alone at home. It was a different sensation Stuti realized – to be alone with somebody in the house and to be alone by oneself.

Hungry, Stuti went to the kitchen. She served herself a bowl of cornflakes and garnished it with some fruits and nuts – she sighed blissfully and dug in. She loved unconventional meals – cornflakes, toast and cheese, banana milk shake but Soumesh frowned upon such things. “That’s not a meal. That’s a snack.”

“But I like it.”

“But if you eat that you wont be able to have your meal. And I refuse to eat all this alone.” And that had been that. Stuti had given in and made his wishes her goals – it was easier that way, especially with just the two of them. Besides she adored him.

They were an unlikely pair and their engagement had caused quite a stir. He was a struggling artist and she a probationary officer at a bank. But like they say – they were meant to be. Their circles were so far apart their chances of meeting were almost nonexistent. Yet, she had caught his fancy at a wedding and he had pursued her quite shamelessly. She was of course terribly flattered by his attention – but what nailed it was that he made her laugh. That and his differentness, his honesty, often brutally so, “I don’t know why I bother with you. You really are nothing much to look at – too mousey by half.”

Yet the glint in his eyes gave her goose bumps. “It’s your eyes – they haunt me, if I could just take your eyes, I wouldn’t ever come back to you.”

“Run Stuti run while you still can,” he advised his lips twisted, “I am not right for you. I have nothing to offer – no money, no status…”

“Anyone can have that. Art is something rare and precious,” stars in her eyes she had retaliated. “Besides, I have a vested interest. You will be able to help our children make their school files. You see I am awful at art and craft.”

The tragedy was that she couldn’t bear children – her tubes were blocked. Alternate options were limited back then and finances even more so. He had withdrawn into his world – shut himself up. Guilt-ridden, Stuti ploughed on – she made him her baby. One that never grew up needing constant mothering and caring. She encouraged him and nurtured his art – given him the complete freedom to pursue his passion. A night owl, he slept during the day while she was away at the bank working. By the time she came home, he was busy; and this happened for days and often weeks on end.

He was there, yet not there.

“How do you tolerate it?” Friends and relatives often marveled.

Even Soumesh had asked, “Why do you put up with me? I am irritable, rude, selfish,” he spread his hands helplessly, “I wouldn’t, why do you?”

“That’s exactly why, my dearest temperamental artist,” she said as she melted into his arms, “to save you from you.”

And it was true. He had no head for anything but art. He frequently forgot the world as art consumed him. If she hadn’t been there, he would have probably starved or burnt the house down. A man of strong likes and dislikes, Stuti guarded him from his ‘irritations’ and willingly entertained his few chosen friends. Frustrated and suffocated in a world that did not appreciate his vision, he often took out his angst on Stuti, his shock absorber.

Stuti soldiered on, instinctively knowing he was meant to shine, rule the world of art. It was up to her to provide and create a situation that would achieve this.

Her belief and his art finally paid off, he was recognized and feted all over. A sense of gratification enveloped her – she was the artist, she had created him. All the difficult times were behind; they would together reap the harvest of their hard work. But then he flew the nest and traveled the world, while her work kept her tied. Yet she basked in his success from afar.

Then as it is wont, he hit a plateau. An artist, who is busy selling his art, has no time for art. Dazzled and lured by the world’s adulation, Soumesh drifted away from his art and his muse deserted him.

Out of public glare, he would drop his pretense of the suave flamboyant debonair artist. At home, he became the conflicted reclusive monster determined to destroy everything – even his friends deserted him.

“Soumesh, please talk to me.” Stuti pleaded over and over again. “Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. At least pick up the paintbrush, something will flow out. At least try.”

“Oh so you will teach me art now? You think you know better than I do. But what do you know of art?”

“No…nothing, I just meant…”

“I know what you meant. You meant that I should pretend to be happy and crack jokes like an idiot when my world, my art is slipping away from my grasp. Don’t you know, nothing in this world means to me as much as my art? I would rather die than not be able to…”

“Please Soumesh, don’t talk like that. I am worried about you. I love you…”

“I am fine Stuti, just fine. I am like this only. If you love me, you will let me be.”

He shut the studio door on her face with a finality that cut her to the core.

But don’t you love me? If you love me, come out please Soumesh. I cannot bear to see you like this. The words remained unsaid and the door remained shut.

And now he had disappeared.

His unexplained disappearance rankled. Try as she might, she couldn’t really find an excuse for him. As she brooded, the spark of resentment grew. As did the doubts – did he really love her or was she just an efficient housekeeper?

She willed herself to not check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous.

And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.

But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?

Looking younger, fresher and brighter than she had seen him in months, he stood on a beach with his arm around a young girl. The picture was captioned – ‘The love of my life’.

Stuti’s heart stood still.

But wait – that was no paramour – she was clearly his daughter. She zoomed in on the picture – yes no doubt about it – the same smile, the same stance.

Even as she stared at the photograph, a barrage of messages followed.

‘Coming home with Kriti. Should be in time for dinner.’

‘Make something special.’

‘Fix up the spare bedroom for Kriti.’

Stuti stared at her phone. How typical of Soumesh not to give any explanation, offer any justification. To expect her to take this in her stride, no questions asked. Only he could do that.

No, only she could do that.

Stuti got up to fix herself a cup of coffee. She stared at the lights out of the window. Soumesh never had an affair that she was sure of. Not because he wasn’t capable or wouldn’t. But because if he had, he would have been the first to tell her – he was almost an obsessive confessor.

So who was the mother?

Out of nowhere, an image flashed across her eyes from many years ago – before they were married.

“Movie and dinner?”

Stuti was surprised and flattered. He didn’t believe in such things. Besides, he was broke. “What did you do, rob a bank?”

He had grinned, albeit sheepishly. “Actually I stocked up a bank. A sperm bank.”

Kriti was a carbon copy of her father and Stuti loved her like her own. Poor girl was quite cut up about the loss of her adoptive parents – father to a freak accident and mother to cancer. Worried about Kirti’s future, the mother had extracted donor details from the bank and contacted Soumesh. Skeptical, he had insisted upon DNA testing. Now that she was no more, Soumesh had brought her home.

All fine and acceptable, except…

“Why did you hide all this from me?” Stuti finally burst out one day.

“I didn’t hide it. I just…just didn’t tell you.”

“Isn’t it the same thing? You knew about this for weeks. Yet you never told me. Why?”

Soumesh looked away. “You know why.”

“No.” Stuti crossed her arms. “You tell me.”

He shrugged. “It’s just that I didn’t want to be disappointed needlessly. I was petrified of having my dream – our dream – shattered once again. I guess I wanted to be sure before…”

“But you had the DNA results before going to meet her didn’t you?”

He nodded.

“So why didn’t you tell me then? Why leave me stewing for three whole days. You really do take me for granted don’t you?”

Soumesh reddened. “I…I wasn’t sure if I would be able to accept her as my daughter. I had to make sure.” He looked at her sulkily. “If I had told you, you would have insisted I do the right thing, whether I…my muse could live with her or not.”

Stuti glared at him. “I don’t believe this! What if she had been our long-lost daughter? Would you have vetted her first then as well? What if she had not matched your standards? Would you have abandoned her? Would Kriti and I have had to kowtow to your decision regarding her suitability to ‘qualify’ as our daughter?” Her voice rose.

“You are over-reacting Stuti, it’s nothing like that.”

“No Soumesh, it’s exactly like that. You really are very selfish aren’t you?” Stuti’s fists were clenched and her eyes were blazing. “All you can think about is yourself.”

“Yeah.” Soumesh shrugged. “I have often wondered how you put up with me. I wouldn’t have been able to.”

That was it. No apology. No contrition. He really was impossible.

All the fight went out of her. “I really should have taken your advice and run long ago.”

He stood there wooden and expressionless. “It’s still not too late.”

She turned away as tears clogged her throat. After 30 years this is what he had to say? When all he had to do was take her into his arms and mutter a half hearted sorry? She was just a housekeeper for him. And now he had his daughter…

Pride stiffened her spine. Fine, so be it. She bent down and dragged out her suitcase.

He coughed. “Surely you are not leaving now?”

“Why?” she rounded on him, “do you want me to serve out a notice period? Handover my ‘job’ to Kriti?”

He withdrew. “No. No I meant at least look for a suitable place – somewhere close to the bank. Delhi traffic is so bad.”

“Thank you for your concern,” she bit out, “but the Noida flat will do just fine.”

“In that concrete jungle? Oh no, I refuse to stay there.”

Stuti stared. “Are you crazy? Only I am going there.”

Soumesh glared at her. “Are you crazy? If you go, I am coming.”

“What nonsense Soumesh.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I couldn’t put up with me.”

So what did you think? What was her reaction? What was your reaction?! Look forward to reading your comments, suggestions, versions  – thanks. Click here for more short stories.

Published by

Dahlia

Email me at mysilverstreaks@gmail.com or tweet me @mysilverstreaks

17 thoughts on “Checkmated”

  1. Loved it!…he didn’t word it but his words surely did mean it rt!..now if she really wants to hear a “sorry” after all these 30 yrs or just the feeling would do…it’s completely in her hands

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow…. what a checkmate… puurrrfect!! Most incorrigible man indeed!! For this prompt, to bring in such an imagination, with freshness and surprises… incredible!! All hues of character sketch have been perfectly painted. “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t”… hahaa, “To be alone with somebody in the house and to be alone by oneself”…. what a contrast!!

    Her reaction: “she would melt into his arms”!!

    Loved it!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness Dahlia! You are so brilliant with the details. You are an amazing writer and this is the best of your short stories. A complicated relationship , yet so adorable. I somehow couldn’t help smiling all the while at Soumesh’s antics. Loved these characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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