The taxi had driven past a sprawling hospital en route to the bistro. Was that the one, he wondered. With the framed painting in the waiting room. Of Bradman pulling to midwicket; crinkled visage of authoritative satisfaction in oil paint. The doctor had been efficient and effusive. Proceeded to embarrass him by asking for an autograph. The cast had been pristine white. Perhaps I should get the gracious doctor to autograph it, he had thought. Signed and sealed for the trip home.
He was early. A table at the back in an inconspicuous alcove. A Gothic deformed candle centered on it. Muted murmur of wine glasses and silverware. He flipped through the generous menu. “What do you recommend?” he asked his smiling waitress. People resort to that to establish domicile in restaurants. Negotiate a harmonious relationship with the staff for the duration of the meal. He sipped his wine and waited.
Harmony came easy in this town. It flowed unimpeded on its sidewalks. He never felt it necessary to exert himself to soak in it. It enveloped. He was a fly trapped in its amber. Preserved in its city records. Enshrined next to its cathedral. On the ground lined with pointy tent tops. Bedouin monuments overlooking his second nomadic visit. Sandwiched between two meanders of insignificance. The last one ending prematurely. Cracked bone, hospital visit, Bradman painting. It hadn’t hurt then. It did now.
He spotted the familiar face at the entrance. No perky Fu Manchu these days. Face weather-beaten like a comfortable glove. He smiled at the busybody bustle leading up to the table. Businesslike as always, like his walk to the middle. He set down his wine glass and stood. The grip of the handshake was expansive. Hope he hasn’t spit on them, they had joked all the time.
“Am I late? Didn’t mean to keep you waiting. Wine, huh?”
The call had come the previous evening. How about we do dinner, he had enquired. A month ago, that could have been Pacino’s offer to De Niro. They would have sparred about taking down scores. But the heist was past now. The heat dissipated. Pockets picked, safe cracked. Loot bolted. He had welcomed the overture. This hiatus was agonizing. The routine was leaking ennui.
“I wonder what’s good in this place.”
He looked at those dark raisin eyes scanning the beer menu. The slash of the mouth, one muscle twitch away from upturning into an impish grin. Or a grim scowl going south. A few more lines and furrows. And probably no nails left. Less hair. Hair is a perceptive indicator. They had seen each other often enough to spot the gray and the encroaching island in the scalp.
Don’t let them get you down, he had said the last time they dined. That was after Bangalore. And Mohali. The gruel was running thin then. Scraping at the bottom. That had made news of all sorts. There had been few other exchanges since – mobile phone touches. They had crossed paths under the cavernous stands before this round started. He was taking throwdowns from his adorable Emmy. Apart from that, they had maintained a decorous distance. Impassive and inscrutable to each other.
“I spoke to Dizzy this morning. He said to say hello. And to remind you that the six to get to your century here was just a fortuitous top edge.”
Aah Dizzy, that hirsute warrior, he laughed. He had been ferocious. A slicer and slasher of the persistent kind. His magnificence had added gravitas. Eight years hence, he could still recall the sweat gushing down as he awaited that awe-inspiring face thundering in at him. He could savour it now.
“We did well in that, didn’t we, you and I?”
“All I remember is scoring nine more than you”, he said with a wink.
“And all I recall is taking the catch to send you back Ricky”.
On the drive down from Bowral earlier in the week, he had relived it all once again. In its minutiae. It wouldn’t be the last time. It always came in waves. Sweeping comfortingly over his ankles. Sand between his toes. Humming in his ears. Still tingled his fingertips. If you leave only one behind, leave one like that.
“If Tugga hadn’t that day, I would have picked up the ball for you. It will never be about Kolkata for me. It is here. And it will never be my double, Rahul. It is yours”, he said.
He had scrutinized him intently in Sydney. Stretching himself. Digging his heels in. In introspective conversation with himself under that green cap. Had willed him on like in South Africa, even as he plotted his demise with his cohorts. Observed the fighter’s fight. The audacity of tenacity. The old authority trickling back.
He watched him attack his plate now. Just like his batting. The same clipped flourishes. Carve of the knife here. Fork that potato out of the way. Clear a path to the gravy. Straight lines. Leave no crumbs.
This would be the last time. Fly out of here; no cast, yet wounded. It had not ended well. A persistent death rattle behind. The geometry of chance. The mislaid assurance that was in abundance all year. So, it was to remain unconquered. Would remain forever an insect trying to get out of his eye.
“What does it matter anymore Rahul? What else is left? In Adelaide, you have shone like diamonds. This is your ground. Farewells are overrated. This is about comfort. This is you returning to a warm blanket. This is you making your own moment. Like you did at Lord’s. Did what Sachin, Brian, Jacques and I hiccupped on. You left Mohali and Bangalore behind. You made your own year. And what a year.”
What one leaves behind. It is in the eyes of the foe. To look back on. Sixteen years is an eternity. But the duels stick. The battles linger. The glares forgotten. Miniscule details bore in. Like his seagull-sprawl dive at midwicket in Kolkata when Lax whipped one square – in vain. The dinners. Don’t you dare give up, he had said. When he needed it.
The waitress smiled at them as they walked out together. Abdicating their domicile. On Tuesday, one last walk. Terminators on the turf. The chocolate box scoreboard. Bedouin tents. St. Peter’s Cathedral. Before the makeover forever masked its beauty. Ethereal. Calming.
Once more the hum in the ear. The tingle at the fingertips. Soft hands. The geometry of chance. The heat.
And those raisin eyes. The slash of the mouth. Spit on the hands.
“Hang around for a few days when this is done, champ. I’ll take you fishing in Hobart. Emmy loves the boat.”
Fishing. Something I have never tried before, he thought.
(A work of fiction. A figment of an overactive imagination.)