A SPLASH OF LIGHT from the late-afternoon sun lingered at the foot of Nariman's bed as he ended his nap and looked towards the clock. It was almost six. He glanced down where the warm patch had lured his toes. Knurled and twisted, rendered birdlike by age, they luxuriated in the sun's comfort. His eyes fell shut again.
By and by, the scrap of sunshine drifted from his feet, and he felt a vague pang of abandonment. He looked at the clock again: gone past six now. With some difficulty he rose to prepare for his evening walk. In the bathroom, while he slapped cold water on his face and gargled, he heard his stepson and stepdaughter over the sound of the tap.
"Please don't go, Pappa, we beseech you," said Jal through the door, then grimaced and adjusted his hearing aid, for the words had echoed deafeningly in his own ear. The device was an early model; a metal case the size of a matchbox was clipped to his shirt pocket and wired to the earpiece. It had been a reluctant acquisition four years ago, when Jal had turned forty-five, but he was not yet used to its vagaries.
"There, that's better," he said to himself, before becoming loud again: "Now, Pappa, is it too much to ask? Please stay home, for your own good."
"Why is this door shut that we have to shout?" said Coomy. "Open it, Jal."
She was two years younger than her brother, her tone sharper than his, playing the scold to his peacemaker. Thin like him, but sturdier, she had taken after their mother, with few curves to soften the lines and angles. During her girlhood, relatives would scrutinize her and remark sadly that a father's love was sunshine and fresh water without which a daughter could not bloom; a stepfather, they said, was quite useless in this regard. Once, they were careless and spoke in her hearing. Their words had incandesced painfully in her mind, and she had fled to her room to weep for her dead father.
Jal tried the bathroom door; it was locked. He scratched his thick wavy hair before knocking gently. The inquiry failed to elicit a response.
Coomy took over. "How many times have I told you, Pappa? Don't lock the door! If you fall or faint inside, how will we get you out? Follow the rules!"
Nariman rinsed the lather from his hands and reached for the towel. Coomy had missed her vocation, he felt. She should have been a headmistress, enacting rules for hapless schoolgirls, making them miserable. Instead, here she was, plaguing him with rules to govern every aspect of his shrunken life. Besides the prohibition against locked doors, he was required to announce his intention to use the wc. In the morning he was not to get out of bed till she came to get him. A bath was possible only twice a week when she undertook its choreography, with Jal enlisted as stage manager to stand by and ensure his safety. There were more rules regarding his meals, his clothes, his dentures, his use of the radiogram, and in charitable moments Nariman accepted what they never tired of repeating: that it was all for his own good.
He dried his face while she continued to rattle the knob. "Pappa! Are you okay? I'm going to call a locksmith and have all the locks removed, I'm warning you!"
His trembling hands took a few moments to slide the towel back on the rod. He opened the door. "Hello, waiting for me?"
"You'll drive me crazy," said Coomy. "My heart is going dhuk-dhuk, wondering if you collapsed or something."
"Never mind, Pappa is fine," said Jal soothingly. "And that's the main thing."
Smiling, Nariman stepped out of the bathroom and hitched up his trousers. The belt took longer; shaking fingers kept missing the buckle pin. He followed the gentle slant of sunlight from the bed to the window, delighting in its galaxies of dust, the dancing motes locked in their inscrutable orbits. Traffic noise had begun its evening assault on the neighbourhood. He wondered why it no longer offended him.
Excerpted from Family Matters by Rohinton MistryCopyright 2002 by Rohinton Mistry. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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