His colleagues at work had asked him if he was busy that weekend. He wasn’t, so he agreed to join them at the Ascot. The races definitely sounded better than crashing in front of the telly alone, eating the previous night’s leftovers.
The only knowledge that Akshay had until then of the Ascot was that of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and her famous line: “move your bloomin’ …” Once there, however, he realized that the Ascot had more to do with hats and champagne and less to do with racing and horses. In fact, the drinking started in the train itself. Waterloo station, from where they boarded the train, wore a festive look that morning, what with half the passengers donning colorful dresses and the wildest headgear to match. Champagne bottles were opened as the train chugged towards Ascot, and Akshay found himself feeling a little tipsy even before he got there.
Royal Ascot was one of the most fashionable sporting events in the country. Delicate hats, huge hats, hats that looked like orchards with huge strawberries and grapes, hats with champagne glasses and corks stuck to them, baby pink hats, maroon, orange, and magenta hats—you pick a color and it was there. Priya would have loved this pageant, to be sure. But she had left four weeks ago.
There was a sudden murmur. Akshay followed the gaze of the rest of the crowd. He saw a lady in a golden dress, tottering on golden stilettos. On her head was an outrageously huge hat made of gold, the shape of a drum. Its diameter must have been at least a meter. Akshay’s mouth fell open as he gaped at her. It was then that he noticed Melanie.
Melanie wore a floral print dress with a black hat and a matching handbag. Her sandals were apparently hurting her, for she held them by their straps in her left hand, while in her right was a glass of champagne. She was tickled by what her companion was saying. She suddenly threw back her head and laughed, spilling some of her champagne onto her hand in the process. Then, without the slightest hesitation, she licked her hand. It was precisely at that moment that she became aware of a pair of eyes watching her.
Akshay watched her with amusement. He took a sip of Pimms. Ah, it sure was refreshing, just like Mel—that’s what he heard her friends call her. She exuded youth and charm. She reminded him of Priya when he had first met her, about ten years back. She was so young, so full of life, so sweet and innocent. Now her youthful charm had been replaced by foundation and lipstick.
Melanie laughed again. This time, as she threw her head back, her hat rolled off. Without taking his eyes off her, Akshay picked it up and handed it to her. As she murmured “thank you” he whispered: “You look the best of the lot.”
“Akshay,” called out Sharon. She worked in the front office and Akshay had known her for a couple of years now. Akshay stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder at her. “Akshay, can you get me a plate of seafood salad, please?”
“Yeah, sure. Anything else?” He raised his eyebrows. She shook her head and he started to move, without looking at where he was going. Bang! He bumped into Melanie head-on, spilling his drink all over her dress.
“Oh no, my dress,” wailed Melanie. “My grandma’s going to kill me, you you …” She glared at Akshay. “I am so, so sorry …” spluttered Akshay. He had seen this sort of an encounter between the hero and the heroine in some Bollywood movie, but he was ready to swear on his kids that he had not planned this.
He tried to dab the stain on the dress with his handkerchief, but Melanie pulled away. “Keep your hands off me, you lout,” she spat.
Akshay was offended. He looked her over, and then turning on his heels, walked away. Pulling up a chair, he sat down by himself, under an umbrella fringed with tassels. After a little while, Melanie approached him silently. She asked him if she could join him. Akshay shrugged his shoulders indifferently and motioned her to sit down. Her anger seemed to have subsided.
Melanie licked her lips nervously. “I am sorry about what I said. I really didn’t mean it.”
“I understand. You were upset …”
“No, you don’t understand. You see, this is my grandmother’s wedding dress. It’s like a family heirloom.”
“I see. But that’s a strange dress for a wedding.”
“Well, my granny was quite a rebel. There was no way she was going to wear a boring virginal white on the most important day of her life.”
“She must have been quite a spitfire. Not unlike somebody I …” Akshay narrowed his eyes as he looked at her.
Melanie was smiling again. One of her upper teeth stood a little behind the rest, making her smile a little lopsided. But far from detracting from her beauty, it added a coquetry to her smile that Akshay found extremely hard to resist.
The microphones announced that the next race was about to begin.
“Have you placed any bets?” Akshay asked.
“Yes. Twenty bucks on Number 17—Shadowdancer.” Then pulling Akshay to his feet, she said: “Let’s go and watch the race.”
Akshay watched the horses racing round the track. Living on the fast track, his life too had become an endless race. It started with monotonous regularity at six in the morning when the alarm went off. He would take a quick shower, gulp down a hot cup of tea, and gobble a bowl of muesli, which tasted like sawdust, while catching the headline news. He would then dart off to take the tube. Then hasten to his desk to check the mail, then rush from one meeting to another, then another dash to take the tube back home … gallop, gallop, gallop, with no end to the race in sight.
A yelp of joy from Melanie brought Akshay back to the races. “My horse is winning. My beautiful Shadowdancer is winning,” she clapped her hands with glee.
Indeed, Number 17, Shadowdancer, had left the other horses far behind. Just like he had. At first it had been a necessity. His first child Chirag had been born just a year after his wedding. Consequently, the burden of taking care of a family had fallen on him early in life. Later, what had begun, as a need, had become a passion. Long hours, hard work, and playing the right cards at the right time had earned him rich dividends.
Initially, each promotion, each milestone reached had filled him with immense joy and a sense of achievement and fulfillment. But now that he had reached the top, he was bored. He was running out of challenges.
Then he saw Melanie’s excited face. She was shouting and cheering. She threw her arms around Akshay, shouting, “He’s won, I’ve won,” as Number 17 crossed the winning post. Akshay looked at her smooth cheeks, then at her lips, mesmerized. Their eyes met. She held his gaze for a moment before shutting them. Her lips parted slightly as Akshay bent his head and kissed her, long and hard.
Just then Akshay heard Sharon’s voice. She was looking for him. He hastily withdrew from Melanie’s embrace and walked a couple of paces to put some distance between them. Sharon had spotted him by now and was waving and walking towards him. “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We are leaving now. Do you want to come with us or …?” She let her gaze rest on Melanie before continuing, “… or stay?”
“I’m coming. Just give me a few minutes.”
“You’ve hit the jackpot, buddy,” Peter, another colleague, muttered under his breath, as he walked past with Sharon.
Akshay turned back to Melanie. She was scribbling something at the back of the program.
“That’s my number. Give me a call tomorrow. Maybe we could meet up for dinner or something.”
“I will,” promised Akshay as he squeezed her hand.
A stale, musty smell greeted Akshay as he entered his house. The kitchen sink was full of dirty plates, bowls, and mugs. Some sort of green algae had started growing in some of them. Akshay had not done any washing ever since Priya’s departure. Now the sight of the dirty dishes and litter depressed him. Akshay chose a mug that was the least dirty, rinsed it and made a strong cup of coffee. Then he opened the refrigerator to find something to eat. It was bare, apart from half a bottle of marmalade and some rotting grapes. Akshay quickly shut the refrigerator door as the smell of stale milk filled his nostrils.
He grimaced as he remembered how spick and span and well-organized his house used to be when Priya was there. Dishes would be neatly stacked, there’d be no smelly socks lying on a pile of newspapers. The smell of fresh flowers and some exotic curry bubbling on the cooker would greet him when he returned from work every evening.
How he loved coming back home then. It was like coming back to the warmth and security of a womb. Akshay sighed. It was so easy to take so much for granted.
He rummaged through the cupboard and found some biscuits in the cookie jar. Nibbling at them, he dragged himself to bed. He noticed the huge pile of dirty clothes next to his wardrobe. Tomorrow he would have to work out how to use the washing machine. Tomorrow …
It was well after midday that Akshay stirred. His head was throbbing. He had never had so much to drink in all his life. The events of the previous day flashed through his mind. He remembered a fresh young face, flushed from too much drink and excitement—Mel. He grinned roguishly as he remembered how he had kissed her. What was he thinking? Or maybe he wasn’t thinking. Was this what they called a midlife crisis?
Akshay picked up the Ascot program from the bedside table and let his eyes rest on the telephone number written at the back. He ran a hand over his stubble as he remembered what Melanie had said.
As he picked up the handset, his eyes fell on the framed photograph of his sons, Chirag and Chetan. He could see them now—clambering over their grandfather, coaxing him to take them to the zoo. Pestering nani for some more laddoos. His face softened as he remembered how their mother used to look when she was carrying them—so soft and feminine and ripe.
Akshay dialed the number.
The program fluttered to the floor and disappeared under the bed as Priya answered the phone.
Sangeeta Bhargava’s short stories and articles have been published in India Currents and Sustainable Development.