Companion

by Tanvir Malik

03aROSEMARY sprang up on her bed as soon as the table clock alarm rang at 7:00am. She hadn’t slept very well. The reasons were twofold: today was Howard’s third death anniversary and, by a cruel irony of fate, it was also her birthday.
He had to go before her; she had feared it all her life. The female body had somehow contrived over eons to last longer. Why would hers be any different? It was a second heart attack that took him away. She knew then the only person to call her by the name ‘Rose’ was gone for good. The first year was very difficult to cope with and she left no stone unturned in putting away everything that reminded her of him. The second was easier and now, into the fourth, she had gotten used to living with it; she had no other way. She plodded to his framed photo on the mantelpiece and looked through bleary eyes. No, no tears rolled down. Time indeed was a great healer.
Her age? She had stopped counting, although the creases in her skin-folds verified that she had already seen her seventieth. However, she didn’t let that get in the way of her self-beautification. She still liked to put on red lipstick whenever she went out and that also accompanied a few dabs of rouge — she loved the word ‘rouge’ since it had a dreamy nostalgia attached to it; the word ‘blusher’ was not only too new-fangled but unimaginative.
She rolled up the window blinds. Bright sunrays flooded the room. Oh, what a beautiful day, she murmured. Though spring was in by the calendar, the sun had been skimpy the past few weeks and gusts of wind still buffeted the Big Apple. But today was a day to spend in the park. Skippy would love it and so would she. Maybe she could let loose the leash a bit so he could skip around for some time. He had been stir-crazy the past week.
The name ‘Skippy’ was given by Josh when he had last flown in to his parents’ from Seattle five years ago. He still called every week, of course, to enquire about his mother’s health. And he still regretted not being there at his father’s funeral. He had been stuck in a conference on the west coast. Lily had come though, in mourning clothes and brought her husband and two sons. She also called every other week and sometimes visited on weekends. Rosemary had no complaints. They’re both busy with their lives and it’s better this way, she continually argued with herself.
Pulling the blinds more, she let the sun fall over her photo on the side table. The rays fell all right but missed her smiling face by a hair’s breath. No matter how much she tried, the light wouldn’t just budge — it stayed put like a stubborn mule. She put in a final spurt in her struggle but then felt a searing pain in her back. Letting go, she flopped down on the couch. Tentacles of pain gripped her back from both sides. Her face contorted in pain and her breathing intensified. On the couch, her upper body reclined towards her lap. Old age had its rewards. ‘Oh, God!’ she couldn’t help saying.
Skippy came barking and snuggled against her ankles.
Woof! Woof!
She lightly stroked his fur. ‘Good boy! Mama’s gonna be all right — no need to worry. It’s okay.’
Skippy started licking her feet and, though the pain hadn’t yet left her body, she smiled. ‘Good boy! Mama’s okay now…shhh!’
He was her everything now. Sometimes he slept alongside her and shared her meals. When she made delay getting out of the shower, he would be outside the door yapping. She routinely took him walking, to the supermarket and to the dog salon. But what he liked most was a walk in the park. There he got frisky and at times barked at strangers; some shrank away while others came near and stroked his fur. She thanked God every day that He had sent him to her. Her whole body shuddered at the thought of not having him by her side even for a minute.
03bShe had learnt over the years that dogs were the best companions humans could have. They hadn’t been called man’s best friend for nothing. They knew how to take and give back. They never took to their heels once they came of age. And, best of all, they were loyal and devoted.
‘Okay now, boy,’ she bent towards him. ‘What are we gonna do now, huh? We’re gonna wait for Lily, James and Jaime to come. And then you can play with them. Has been a long time since they came, right?’
Skippy looked up.
‘What? It hasn’t been that long? Oops! Mama’s gone old — she forgets things. Ha, ha!’
She inched towards the kitchen. ‘And what are we to do in the afternoon? We go to Central Park! Don’t you just love that, dear? Don’t you?’
Woof, woof!
‘I know, I know. You don’t have to thank me.’
Rosemary got some chocolate chip cookies out of a can. She had baked them the previous evening. The boys loved cookies baked by their granny. She waited for the moment they would wolf down the cookies and thank her copiously. She would relive her own childhood then — the way she had relished her grandmother’s cookies. The taste that could never hold a candle to anything else in the world!
She arranged the cookies on a platter in a flat, pyramid formation — the way her grandsons liked — and set it down on the dining table. Then she poured two glasses of milk and lit a candle. While doing this, it then caught her eye that the red polish on her nails had chipped. How silly of me not to have noticed. She immediately set about taking care of this emergency and, not long after that, she was busy blowing her nails, bringing them very close to her lips so they would dry quickly.
No sooner had the nail polish dried than the phone rang. R-r-ing! She still had the old phone in the apartment. She loathed cell phones.
‘Hello. Oh, my dear. When…? Why? Oh, I see, I see. Okay, now. Thanks, dear! Have a good one.’
Woof, woof!
She looked at him and thought for a while. ‘That was Lily. Called to say they couldn’t make it today. “Urgent business”!’
Sitting on the floor, Skippy cocked his head as if to make out the words of her sentences.
‘Said she would come tomorrow. But the boys can’t. They have practice.’ She sat down. ‘She wished me happy birthday though. Said it three times.’
Skippy kept listening.
‘You know, dear, when I think of the days gone by, I … I…,’ her voice cracked and she bit her quivering lips. ‘But I guess it’s better this way,’ she nodded to herself.
Woof, woof!
‘Okay, now. I bet you’re starving. Let’s make short work of the cookies, eh?’ The two occupants of a one-room apartment in the Upper West Side of New York City sauntered toward the cookies. Nobody walking on the sidewalks of 106th Street heard the crunching of the cookies. Nobody heard the sighs either.

CENTRAL Park on a sunny spring day hosted many visitors. Few New Yorkers could resist the temptation of trekking up its rolling mounds and jogging up and down its meandering roads. Cyclists abounded and so did promeneurs. Nannies pushed strollers, baby-talking the occupants inside. Tourists busied themselves with taking pictures in its umpteen scenic corners. Squad cars kept patrolling the roads lest cyclists spilled out onto the narrow pedestrians’ paths.
Rosemary came an hour earlier than she had previously decided. The afternoon breeze brushed against her drooping body and gave her a chill. Skippy was ecstatic. He kept going round and round her legs which bound her up in tangles. She laughed.
‘Told you you’d like it and you do, don’t you?’ she said in an indulgent tone.
Tugged on by Skippy, Rosemary struggled to move. The road snaked ahead with trees of numerous kinds on both sides. Looming tops of skyscrapers were visible at intervals but they couldn’t somehow obscure the lush greenery of the park. Rosemary had always been thankful that although she lived in a concrete jungle, the verdure of the park always set things off.
Suddenly, Skippy started barking.
An old woman walked up with a poodle from the opposite direction. She was about the same age as Rosemary. She wore a sweat shirt and pants and her nails were painted red. Whiffs of perfume wafted in the air. She stopped near them and said: ‘Ooh, what a handsome doggy!’
‘Thank you,’ Rosemary said.
‘You must be a proud mother.’
‘I am,’ she nodded. ‘And you must be too.’
Both women laughed.
The woman hunkered down and cuddled Skippy. ‘Aren’t you a nice poodle!’
‘Actually, we first thought that too but it’s Labradoodle — a cross between a Labrador and a poodle,’ Rosemary corrected.
‘Oh, I see. I’m Beth, by the way,’ she extended her hand.
The two women bonded immediately, thanks to their companions. They sat down and talked for minutes about everything that concerned dog-care: shampooing, picking out fleas, changing collars and so on and so forth. They discovered to their utter amazement that there were a lot of things common between them except being widows.
‘Have you been to the Cherry Corner today?’ Beth asked.
‘Can’t say I have.’
‘Oh, you must go. Colours are running riot there. Go and find out.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I have to leave now. Feeding time for Betty.’
‘Okay. It was nice meeting you two. Hope we can talk more.’
‘Sure. We can catch up later. Have a good one.’
‘You too.’
Rosemary walked ahead with Skippy. The inclines gave her a tough time and she stopped periodically to catch her breath. The declines, however, were a breeze. She felt young again. The trees had started to put out new foliage which seemed all ready to dive into the thick of spring. A fortnight or more would finally see the completion of their wait.
At last they came near the Cherry Corner. Scores of cherry trees in full bloom stood just in front. The falling petals seemed to lay frozen between the trees and the ground — like the bullets in a Hollywood blockbuster — and the ones that had already touched the ground, layered it in an inch-thick carpet.
‘Beth was right. It’s breathtaking! See, Skippy? You see how beautiful they are?’
Woof, woof!
‘I knew you’d agree,’ she smiled.
She wanted to sit there for hours and take in the unfurled beauty that lay before her eyes — she had all the time in the world. Maybe she should come here more often. Maybe she had just discovered new companions in the trees. They would make very good friends indeed. In a big way, she thought, they’re like dogs — steadfast in devotion and unflinching in loyalty.
Rosemary looked agape at the magnificent splendour of the pink and white cherry trees. The afternoon sun filtered through the branches and projected fluid, dancing shapes on to the grass. Splendid, she thought. But a thought struck her — as stunning as the trees were, wasn’t their beauty dumb? Could she lay her heart bare to her new friends? No, she couldn’t. Could they respond? No, they couldn’t. In effect, they couldn’t even utter ‘woof’. This sudden realisation bemused her. She stood staring with glazed eyes.
A moment later she sat down on the grass, pulled Skippy as close as possible and ran her fingers through his newly-brushed fur. He said: woof!

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