|| The Ticketing Clerk ||
It was many years ago when I first met her. And soon I was to feel that I must see her again, and again, and again. Oh! How I would then repeat these silly words – “I want to see her again” – in my mind where she settled to reign forever!
But I was praying for something that surely was not to going to happen – just like wishing that the moon encircling the green planet in a blue haze would fall into its embrace.
It was all because of Sebi. He was my colleague and friend, and my sole company in the office and out of it. But he finally announced that he was going to visit his mother in Israel, where she had already gone and settled. They were Jews from Kerala. She had lived a long and lonely life as a widow. So, after Sebi left her in Kochin and came to work in Bangalore, she emigrated. Now, some two years after her departure, one day he said he was going to buy an air ticket for Israel. He asked me if I would go with him to the travel agent.
We got off the office bus at a quiet office block on Richmond road. The sun had set, and the lights had gone off in most of the offices. But in one, the office of Pan World Travels, the lights still shone. We pushed through its single swing door with neat Venetian blinds. Inside, it was empty in the dimly lit lounge. But for a girl working in a cubicle, the office was deserted. Sebi was shy, and easily got tongue-tied before girls. But this time, he indicated the visitor’s waiting area and said, “Wait for me here.” So, I sat down on a visitor’s sofa and waited for him to finish his inquiries. As I picked up a magazine I heard the girl greet him familiarly.
After he finished, he came to me and stood for a while, as if deliberating before speaking. Then he said, “Paulo, why don’t you get your passport made here?” I said, “Why should I get my passport made? Why do you ask?” At that time I had no future plans that had room for a passport. Among my colleagues only Sebi had a passport. Sebi said, “That girl there, she asked me if you too are planning to go to Israel. I said you are not a Jew. She said but you could still visit me. But, you don’t even have a passport. So she said if you buy an international return trip from here she will get your passport made free of charge. Therefore, I am asking.” I said, “But, I am not going abroad! You know I only go home once a year, that too by train.” He said, “Well, it is up to you. Just think of getting your passport made free. No hassle, no charge, no nothing. Just fill up some forms. And she will get the rest done.” I said, “But, what about the ticket? I will never fly anywhere!” Sebi said, “I asked her about that too. She said that is OK. You need not buy a ticket immediately. You only have to promise.” I said, loud with incredulity, “Promise? What if I cannot keep my promise?” Sebi turned and looked at the girl. She had lifted her head and was obviously trying to follow our conversation, but as obviously did not seem to hear us clearly. She smiled, probably to show she understood my reluctance and to urge me to overcome it. I got up and said, “Come on, Sebi. Let’s leave.”
Outside, we walked leisurely and entered a place for coffee. After a while, Sebi said, “Just think about it Paulo. And think that’s how you get to know this beautiful girl.” Caught off guard, I frowned, “Beautiful?” “Yes! Did you not notice? She is so beautiful!” Sebi said with a forlorn shadow in his eyes.
We spoke no more about it, and soon we took our separate buses in opposite directions. In the bus I began to think. Sebi had an awful notion of what made girls look beautiful. Most of his favorite beauties in the evening French class were typical dark skinned demure girls with long tresses of curly hair and fugitive eyes. Walking face down, feet entwined in shy embarrassment, they looked like they might stumble and fall. Fearing they might actually fall and seek the support of his arms, Sebi generally gave them a wide berth on the staircase and in the narrow corridors. But nevertheless, he spoke of their beauty.
In spite of all these thoughts I kept remembering the forlorn shadow in Sebi’s eyes. Why had he looked so forlorn? Did he know that the ticketing clerk was unattainable in some way?
After two weeks, I was back with Sebi at the travel agent’s. And, she gave me the forms to fill up. I stared at her lowered face, trying hard not to stare. She was dark. She was beautiful. She had a carefully crafted heart shaped face. It bore no makeup except for the orange tinge of the two moist segments of her lips. A faint fruity smell, probably of the orange lipstick, had lost its way around her. And, the abyss of the pool of her dark eyes! And, the fountain of long curved cilia at their brims! Her head was a mass of much disciplined fine silky hair that trembled in the stream of an overhead fan. Her dark skin was perfect chamois, flawlessly stretched soft and translucent over her lissome figure like black leotard. As she handed me the forms, looking for them in the drawers of her desk and fetching them one by one, I felt she was new at her work. I could sense that she had noticed my unabashed attention, and that distracted her beyond control. I do not remember if we spoke many words, except that I thanked her, and she gave me a card to call up her office in case I needed any clarification or assistance to fill up the forms.
After I had filled up the forms, and got all the documents, which took some time, I went back with Sebi to submit them. Sebi was happy for me, and coming out of the office he said, “Don’t you agree she is beautiful? I told you.”
One day I got a call on my office phone. A colleague who took the call whispered in my ears that it was a woman. As I said hello, a hesitant voice asked me to confirm my identity. Then she said would I come around some time. There was a form that I had not filled. I could not recollect which one I might have missed. When I went, she handed me a form that was an undertaking to buy an international air ticket in future. I felt ridiculous. Still, I filled it up hurriedly and gave it to her. I was getting late for my French class.
The very next day she called me. I had not filled two blank spaces, one for the destination and the other for the purpose of visit. I asked her if it would do to tell her on the phone. No, she said, it had to be in my handwriting.
Well, that meant another visit with Sebi, who was quiet enjoying the development. I took the form from her and hesitated before filling up the two blank spaces. She saw what I had written and looked up with a gaze full of wonder and awe. She asked, “Sir, you will be going to the USA for your honeymoon?” – stressing on ‘USA’. Sebi, sitting next to me, was so taken aback that he poked me hard in the ribs. With a deadpan face I told her, “Yes, my would-be father-in-law wants to send us for a honeymoon in the States.” Her credulous face lit up with a most disarming smile and she said, “Congratulations, Sir! So, can we expect you to buy the tickets soon?” I said, “Oh, I am not getting married that soon!”
Outside, Sebi gave me a hard elbow knock on my back and demanded to know what the hell I was up to. I said that a thought had suddenly passed my mind to be frivolous with her. “But,” I asked, “How does it matter?” Sebi said, “Not to me! But to her.” I said, “Oh, should it? Did you not notice, she had a ring on her ring finger?” Sebi got very angry, “It does not matter whether she is married or not. It is your playing with a gullible person – that too, when you are making her a promise.” But, I had just noticed her thin ring with a circle of small white stones set around a solitary pink stone. I had noticed it when it was too late for the emotions that had been building up inside me.
Had I wanted to delude her about her being married, with the story of a grandiose honeymoon that she could not have? But, why, I asked myself again and again in the days that followed.
A few months later I received my passport by post. I thought of going to the office to thank her. But instead, I rang up the office. Someone took the call. When I wanted to ask to speak to her I realized that I did not know her name. So, I asked for the girl who looked after passports and air tickets. The man said, “Oh, you mean Chantal. She has not come to office today.” I said I had called to thank her for getting me my passport, and would he kindly tell her. Then I hung up. I felt disappointed.
Her name intrigued me. It sounded so French. One day I dropped in at her office, at the hour when I knew she would be alone, winding up the day’s work. Seeing me she smiled and motioned me to sit. I said, “I just came by to thank you for my passport. I got it a few days back.” Her left palm lay on the table, pressing down some papers. I looked at the ring on her finger and asked, “By the way, how come you have a name that sounds French?” She smiled and said, “It is French! We are from Pondicherry. My parents still live there. My father had been a law officer of the French government. He still gets his pension from France.” I got up and said, “Well … thanks again!” Then I left, wondering what I had come for.
About two years later, at my office I qualified to go to England for one-year training at the Cranfield School of Management. There I did well and got an offer to stay on and complete two year post-graduation. Finally, I returned after three years. Sebi had by that time immigrated to Israel.
After a few days of my return, I was riding a bus down Richmond road. I looked out to see the office of Pan World Travels. It was not there. For some unknown reason my heart sank. I had hoped to see the office. I wanted to believe that some girl still worked there, getting passports made for strangers, hoping that they would return one day to buy their tickets from her as promised. I felt so bad that when returning I sat in the bus looking at the opposite side of Richmond road.
That’s how I saw it, the new office of Pan World Travels. It had shifted to a larger place on the opposite side of its old location, a hundred yards or so down the road. It now had four glass doors. Relieved, or rather elated, I hastily got down at the next stop and walked back to the office. I realized that I was nervous with expectation.
I opened one of the doors and looked across to see if she still sat opposite the door. A smart looking receptionist smiled at me and asked, “How may I help you?” I walked up and said, “I am and old customer. I have to renew my passport.” I paused. Then I said, “Actually, I had got my first passport made here. I need to see the forms I had filled then. Is it possible?” If she thought my request unusual, she did not show it. She just asked, “Do you have your passport with you?” I shook my head and said, “I can tell you the number.” She nodded and gave me a piece of paper. I wrote down my passport number. She told me to wait and sent the paper to someone. The man came back and asked me if I had any papers to prove my identity. I had none. Desperate, I asked, “Could I see your manager? This is rather urgent.” The receptionist picked up a phone and spoke to someone. Then she said, “Please go and see Ms Krishnamurthy in that cabin.” She pointed to a large cabin with frosted glass. I went and tapped on the door and then entered.
She sat there. She looked up and said, “Please come in.” There was no sign of recognition. She looked much the same, – a little slimmer, and a lot more dignified in a beautiful yet simple silk sari. I sat down. She signed some papers and then smiled at me to indicate that I could speak.
I said, “I had come to this office couple of years back, when it was at the old location. A girl who used to work there had got my passport made. I had made a promise to buy my first air ticket from her. I am now ready to buy the ticket.”
She said, “Wouldn’t you like some coffee” and picked up the phone to ask for it. She held the phone with her left hand. There was no ring on it. Not even the usual pale circle that develops under a ring worn for long. Five virgin dark skinned fingers delicately held the handset. She saw my stare and knit her eyebrows. She said, “Yes Sir. Please tell me your destination.”
I felt deeply embarrassed, remembering my last lie. I knew I had given the game away. I said, “I do not think you have recognized me.” ‘Or, you would not have asked me this question again’ I thought. She said, “But, I did! The moment you entered I recognized you.” And then she smiled.
I too laughed. The coffee came. I sipped it, and then said, “Lots of changes around here. But, I did not expect to see you in the manager’s chair. You seem to have done pretty well.”
Her face became dark. She put down her cup and said, “Actually, three years back my father died, I came into all his property, and I had to take charge of this place.”
I almost choked on my coffee. I said, “But then … those days you worked at selling tickets!” She smiled again, and said, “Oh, those days I was an apprentice. Father’s wish, you could say.” Then she asked in a serious tone, “So, please tell me … did you really come to buy tickets from us?”
I put both my hands palm down on the table, hoping she would notice my fingers had no ring on them. I said, “No. And, I am glad that I came. I think I would like to go to the USA, though not immediately. I just dropped in to see you, and apologize for having lied to you the last time.”
She said, “Yes … I remember. Honeymoon in the USA. Wasn’t it? Well then …” Her ebbing tone told me she wanted to get on with her work.
I stood up to leave. Then I said, “Those days you had a ring on your ring finger. I do not see it now.”
She smiled a mysterious smile, and said, “Those days everyone who did not care about their lives lied. Didn’t they?”
© mikupa / 21 April 2016