I stood on the terrace sipping tea and enjoying the golden dusk. I love this time of the day, neither here nor there, not day and not yet night. It’s like we are in transit, started from somewhere but not yet reached and so we are free; liberated from the confines of reality, from its rules and laws! Lost in my thoughts I didn’t realize it had become quite dark and turned to go back. The corridor leading to the guest room was dark and the lights in our room were not turned on. Abhay had not come back yet. I was a bit disappointed.
Abhay and I had arrived in Bathinda last week and were putting up in the guest room at the Army mess. We too were in transit and living out of our suitcases as we hadn’t got our quarters yet. Our home was packed in boxes, and though the guest room was very beautifully furnished, I missed the familiarity and safety of my home. I was still finding my sea legs, and I admired Abhay’s ability to make himself at home in any situation. Like a true soldier, he let nothing affect him, he was at home instantly in any situation and, with his clothes and uniforms hung in the almirah, his army boots on the shoe rack and his bike in the garage, he was ready for the call of duty! He had joined immediately and after he left for office it was up to me to entertain myself. The place was lonely, a little far from the main cantonment but nearer to the office where Abhay spent his days and sometimes larger part of the night. The Officer’s mess building was an L shaped double storied building with a lawn in the front and thick wooded area behind it. The ground floor had a beautifully designed ante room and a dining room on the right facing the lawn, and a neat little library in the corner with the kitchen and utility rooms at the back. On the first floor were five guest rooms, two facing the lawn and the remaining three along a corridor leading to a terrace. This was the only building as far as the eye could see. The mess staff put up in rooms beyond the lawn. The woods were the haunt of nilgai, wild hare and hyenas. These animals, specially the nilgai and hare, gave tough competition to the dahlias, asters and flowering plants in the garden. Every night without fail the nilgai would jump over the fence and have a midnight gala on the lawn and the hare too would feast on the flowers and buds. The hyenas participated from afar providing background music.
I spent the day reading books and watching TV, and observing the routine of the staff, as there was no internet and cell range, my laptop and cell phone were useless. In the evenings I missed Abhay a lot. He was very busy with the unit inspection and often came late. Today I picked up Poe’s short stories and settled myself for a long wait. At around 12:30 in the night, I heard Abhay’s bike in the garage. I knew it was him because he always put the bike on stand and then switched off the engine. I opened the door and went out along the long corridor to the head of the stairs and stood there waiting for him to come up. But after a few minutes, I was puzzled because there seemed to be no one. I called out for Abhay but no answer. I thought of going down but I wasn’t appropriately dressed and it was too dark so returned to my room and locked the door. Looked like my mind was playing tricks, but I was so sure that I had heard the bike, anyways , I picked up my book again and just then heard a knock on the door. Oh, so it was Abhay, after all, he always knocked with his bike keys so I ran and opened the door. There was no one, again! I got out and again walked along the corridor to the head of the stairs and called out, “Abhay, Abhay .. I know it’s you. Stop playing games.” There was no answer. I realized I was standing at the head of the staircase, down below was the garage in darkness and on my left was a long corridor leading to the dark terrace, and I couldn’t decide where to go as I was sure Abhay was hiding somewhere to scare me! To be honest I was a bit spooked, and as if on cue the hyenas started howling in the woods. A cold breeze blew from the terrace and a chill ran down my spine. I almost ran to my room and locked the door, and there it was again, a knock on the door in Abhay’s style! I called out, “who is it? Come on, Answer me, or I will shout the whole building down! Who is it? Answer me!!! “No sound. I decided to not open the door till I hear Abhay’s voice, but the knocking wouldn’t stop… tak tak tak …..tak tak tak… it continued in a rhythm …Abhay’s style exactly. I couldn’t ignore it and didn’t have the courage to open the door. I called out to the guard from my window but no answer. I was really scared out of my wits. The incessant knocking was making me panic, my mouth had gone dry and I couldn’t scream any more. I had to do something about it and decided to open the door. As I slowly approached the door gathering my courage, the knocking stopped! I stood near the door and tried to listen … all my senses concentrated in my ears! No sound .. five minutes went by .. I was still at the door and I heard Abhay’s bike in the garage! Oh my God! Has begun again? horrible déjà vu….. but then I heard him “Aditi , Aditi open the door … are you sleeping?” I was at the door but it took a lot of nerve to open the door, just a crack, and peered out. It WAS Abhay! I flung open the door and hugged him tightly as if my life depended on it. He was surprised but held me close as we walked in. He shut the door and looked at me, “Aditi, what happened… are you okay? “ Now that my fear was assuaged, anger filled me. Anger at myself for being so ‘darpok’ ..a coward and at Abhay for tormenting me. I looked at the clock; it was 12:40 am , only ten minutes had passed. Only a span of ten minutes; which seemed like an eternity. I asked him, “didn’t you come at 12:30 and why did you try to scare me? Hiding and knocking on the door! “He looked genuinely puzzled, “I’ve just come back. Believe me darling, in fact I even signed the entry register at the gate.” I narrated the whole incident, after which Abhay and me went down the stairs to the garage and then to the terrace. There was nothing …no one! We came back in the room. Abhay saw Poe’s story volume and smiled with a twinkle in his eyes, “So my brave Aditi was spooked… stop reading these stories darling” he said. I still wonder what happened that night.