Today is Sunday and a plausible day in the calendar for me at the cafe. Recently I had a lot of angst about how I spend my time. Attempting to get back all of it from unfruitful works. Cash had never been my principle vexation. Except at a specific time of life, when I appallingly felt its absence and thought how I could have shared some of it for society’s beneficial uses. But my thoughts only remained on paper. I did not bulk up any amount of mega wealth to satisfy all these dreams. At times when I was poor, I tried to console myself with the idea that health is wealth (as in those times of diseases in history) and did not feel miserable in this regard. But only as time passed, I realized that some works do not elevate my soul and are not worthy of pursuit during my stay here, which again is a brief period… Today another intriguing thing occurred toward the beginning of the day when I was leaving the bistro.
That morning, first I went to an expensive one and in the wake of seeing the menu, requested an espresso since I was there just to be away from my routine of the week. And also, it guaranteed more moments to muse upon certain ball games where my presence is imperative. At the point when I left the restaurant, a little girl of nine or ten moved toward me and she focused on the fruit vendor and requested a taste of it and I obliged. And I was buying this for her when her little sister came and needed one for her too. The seller was not hepped up to give these things to them, still, they were given, and he didn’t take the full price, however, reduced some cash, and started recounting that these youngsters are not on the right path. Without doubt that is a devious perception and who are we to pass such a judgment on these poor kids who are already carrying on with an existence of indigence. They were living in lanes and a good ways off, one could see their mother. This is where we are to refrain from verbalism yet do something that will not diminish the staidness of the scene. Then again your awful wishers -anyway though you are a peaceful joe, you have a few such on the planet-will make you interminably muffled on all such spells. Yes, you know the entire saga.
Then I went to this historic cafe, a fine edifice jutting into the sidewalks, with prominent pillars of azure blue and pink, and amber coloured glass panes and leaf motifs on primal walls, a few hundred yards away from city enceinte. Two hundred years might have passed since its birth, and once it was the château of the gentry and later converted to a garrison and then a cafe. Old honchos gave way to new ones. The cafe was thronged by silk-stockings and the au courant and mixed populace lending it cosmopolitan aureole… It was still morning and the sun was young and the guests went to and fro, some getting down from limousines and others leaving the quarter. Here in this swank bistro on that December morning, I met the old gentleman, quiet and doddery in demeanour.
He might have been in his late sixties, with hair partly white and partly cinereous. He sat in the bistro for an hour or more languishing and now and then, fiddling the little cigarette lighter he kept in his palm. He carried a Dobermann of rare Isabella fawn hue with him. He grinned at the watchman and attempted to enter decisively because it was where pooches were permitted entry. At that point, the gatekeeper objected and so did the administrator and there was a tussle between the portcullis and the counter. The supervisor argued that a significant number of visitors were kids underneath the age ten and the Dobermann might scare them. And the supervisor’s words prevailed. This was the moment he chose to sit opposite me.
I gave him a respectful smile as he seemed to be quite older than me. Though he smiled back, it was a reluctant one, and it seemed he was preoccupied in some serious thoughts. He wore light blue shirts with a wool chesterfield. The cargo pants was beige and démodé. Part of his teeth was visible in the frontal segment of the face. He had no portable stick though once in a while he looked in need of that. Later, alone looking at the empty seat he was in, I checked closer the scale of the jumbled emotions I went through while he was staying there. Then he left and the seat was vacant. I thought it was better when he remained there. Something huge went missing when he left that seat. That assumption of absence tarried with me on a few shots for the rest of the day. Amidst get-togethers varied and vain. I reminisced I gained something very distinct but later brushed it off as a bunch of nonsense.
When I went there the second time, the café was almost full. It was noon. As I had developed some presynaptic symptoms, I had been on two days leave and today felt fairly fine. It was, in fact, a peak time in the bistro, and I was searching for a seat and found a chair unoccupied in the central portion of the hall. When I looked opposite, I found that it was him. The old man with the Dobermann. He now smiled warmly.
Over breakfast, we talked as if we were friends for some time. He reeled off the story of an inconceivable man that he had been in the past as his snappy alliances testified. Scorned in workplaces with a rum ire that ripped many a chord of good relations. During the conversation, he smirked possibly to himself or the wide vacuum between the dawn-tinted dividers and seemed to summon up succour to let loose the next few driblets. He squandered his stock in wagering games and was thrown out of the house. His son had already left when at college and has not been traceable since then. He had two more espoused girls but after the wedlock, none of them was fair enough to bestow him some mercy.
He lived in a lean-to next to the main drive with the pet quadruped. Paltry sums he got out of odd tasks, a security duty or carpenter’s job which he knew. At times he drew with colour chalks on pavements, a pleasant landscape or a popular figure and collected his money in a towel. Earlier I had seen some street artists in my town and had wondered what their past would have been, but now, I got an inkling of that issue. These things are among the secret folios of life that are hidden from us for some time or at times forever.
My presence, he said, was a decent boost to him, though he would prefer to be alone. I wanted to help him with a passable amount because that week was also a fortuitous one in my calendar as I was clearing away some of my debts by selling a part of my house. The deed was executed months ago, but the first part of the deal came to my account only a fortnight ago. I asked him about his wife and he said she felt unsafe with him in his financial mayhem and is with the daughters. And he told me with a genuine feeling of sadness that though they were willing to help him, their spouses are totally against it. Let the old spendthrift suffer. Only then the goose will learn. One of them even mentioned a very bad jargon in the vocabulary in his presence. The funny part was that he was that fellow’s tutor in the tenth class. So Caliban can come from all parts of the earth at all times.
It was past the ides of January that I visited the café again. He was there. He said that his mother was of Romanian blood and his father was Indian. He studied in Paris. His mother was a Freemason and had her parent lodge in London. He did odd jobs after he had lost his regular job as the administrator of a prestigious institution, and after the school bus tragedy, he lost major jobs permanently, as some sources reported that he was the chief culprit in that incident that took away many innocent lives.
After the incident, he had bouts of depression but on another personal side, lost his connection for good ones forever and was henceforth doing quaint jobs. In the past three years, the Dobermann was his sole companion and he told me that dog is a special animal, a very grateful brute and he is happy that his love for a living being is reciprocated immediately. We human beings, he said, do not express love from the heart, because we are more worried about the image we create before others than actually expressing it. He had for that reason liked certain types of women in his life who are pellucid and expressive in their emotional lives, than those who cultivate an image of goodness before society.
If he gets a second chance in life, he said he would prefer living with such a woman, with whom he can uncloak his soul. According to him, promiscuity is not a big sin as we conceive, but a false emotional life certainly is, because it takes away the true joy of life forever and joy is an integral part of our being… That day, we were occupying the window chairs and the panes were wet in the morning drizzle and the air carried smell of fresh bitumen on dragways. Outside at a distance were manifest mighty stretches of silver poplars of heart-shaped and coarsely toothed leaves atremble in the wind. I asked him about his original home and he replied that his father kicked off when he was a small boy and he was brought up by his mother and aunts. They had a house near the Dacian citadels, and he left the country when his mother died. He was educated by his stepfather and he studied art in Paris and when his stepfather pegged out in the Second World War, he skived all connections with the immediate chain of relatives and travelled from city to city, country to country.
The next ten years, he said, were the happiest in his whole life, and when he said that, a drop of tear touched the rim of his eyelashes. He claimed that his forefathers were Transylvanian Saxons and played a decisive role in the city’s development, but usually, I don’t take these genealogy tales very seriously because in my place every other household has written genealogy books, which contained only wrong historical data just to please those coming generations making them smug and dorky.
He asked what I am into and I said, I am an aide to a mathematician who is doing some studies in Fibonacci numbers and also the 1202 book Liber Abaci. Then he called the waiter and asked him a tissue paper and after getting some of them took a red colour pencil from his coat pocket and drew -1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21, which surprised me more by the dramatic timbre of his gesture than by the actual scribblings…
It was another Sunday morning and my chief mathematician was in Pisa, wandering by the household of the Fibonacci writer. I was in this ancient town and had just returned yesterday from a trip to Argeș county, in the Southern Carpathians. And I saw the old man in the cafe.
I could not guess his arrival because the Dobermann was not outside the storm door. This happened after several months from our previous meeting and readers should be aware that there was a gap of about five months between our first and last huddles. I was towards the caudal of my itinerary and was asked to come back forthwith cancelling further trips to my home department, where I was permanent staff. There was a recent calamity at home as my eldest son in high school, who was preparing himself to be a professional swimmer jumped into an ice-cold lake in Kashmir as part of training and narrowly escaped death thanks to rapid medical advertency. I was happy and grateful to all life in general and to the wonderful people I had met on these sacral tramps. I entered the cafe with a smile, stroking my hair that was falling on the baldness and touching the thick moustache that was a fashion in my city at that time. And I saw Francis, (it was his first name) in the cafe with a woman of exceptional beauty in the early fifties. Such beauty in such a journey of life was more a miracle than a remarkable spectacle. And I went to their table and gave the gentleman a firm handshake and a warm Namaste to the adorable lady in the Indian way.
Alice is my wife, he introduced me to the lady. ‘Lisa, this is Pablo from India. His mother is Syrian — ‘. Francis continued: ‘He is the assistant to the famous mathematician, Mr.B – -. Now on a study trip’. The old belle smiled as if she saw her brother from another part of the globe. At the end of the introduction, I felt perplexed, as I was mostly loitering around in theatres and operas, places where western music and dance takes place. And also to obtain rare collections of Gregorian chants from the abbeys of their birth as my wife had told me. She aspired to enjoy the music as well as make a good impression in front of her sisters. It was Easter season and the last days of Lent. I was happy to finally see the old couple together despite old differences. And Francis, in a most informal gesture, invited me to the empty chair.
When the lady smiled at me again, I was partly shocked by the semblance of her features to one of my cousins on my mother’s side and also by the fact that my knowledge of ethnicity and race is very minimal. While having food, he said that he and his wife had separated from their children and that they were staying in a one-room apartment behind Strada Cerbului…
In the conversation that followed, I asked the lady if she could act in a future film of my friend. My friend, a filmmaker, asked me months ago if I could spot a smart old lady for his imminent project. She responded in the negative and shifted the talk to other topics such as the barter in coffee beans which they were then engaged in and the embroidery work which is her passion. It was a fabulous evening and when we were at the exit door, the evening sun was setting and the red rays fell on the amber coloured glass panes of the lobby and further outside on layers of blue jewel hepatica and the picture lay imprinted in my memory for a long era.
When we were in the lounge, Francis called me to his side and said in a whisper, that he did not expect to live long and he will wait for me in church for Holy Communion next Sunday. It might be my last fellowship, he said. In the Ippolit style (‘I have the honour to invite you to my funeral ..’), he said that my presence is beseeched for the last piece of his story. He gave me the address and kissed and went to the carriage. I assured him that I would be there for the priest’s sermon if not for the Eucharist because I do not know their traditions.
But the following weeks were the most hectic of my entire touring season, as my senior mathematician called from Pisa, that he wanted more diligent labour from my part and warned that it is unethical to go sight-seeing on funds from the Research Institute. I was unable to keep Francis’ appointment… After two weeks I received a letter from his wife that Francis died of a heart attack and although she tried to contact me, she couldn’t because I was moving from place to place and some trips were far from the principal courses.
The letter stated that his last services will be at – – Church and his former companions will attend. And also, as his last friend on this planet, I had a special place in his life. But it was too late. And I answered over the telephone that he was one of the most remarkable friends with whom I had been, even if I yearned that our friendship had occurred a little ahead in time. She said he was a great man, of course with certain idiosyncrasies and he was very unfortunate to have lost a grand career because of that accident for which he was partially responsible.
I asked her how she was and she answered that she will not join her daughters. She had lately met her former classmate at school, who had a destiny similar to hers, whose children forsook her. Her school friend was a charwoman throughout her life and had raised her children to high standards, and one of them is in Chicago. But she has no regrets, and she only thought that she had finished her mission on earth before the invisible present.
It was an Easter time thirteen years ago, and when I think of this story, the Carpathian winds still ring in my ears.
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