Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Prey

‘Was the door of the compartment open when you went to the toilet?’ the police inspector asked.
‘How many times should I answer that?’ I grumbled, sounding tired and exasperated.
‘I haven’t asked you that before,’ he said with a smile, looking smug.
He was right. He had asked variations of the same. ‘Was the door open when you returned to your cabin?’, ‘Was the door closed when you went around midnight?’, ‘Was the door open when you got out of the toilet, what did you say, ah yes, after half an hour in the toilet, that’s a long time in a train toilet?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ I replied, the same for the fourth time.
‘Ok, let’s leave that for the moment. Please bear with me,’ he said, the quintessence of the apologetic good cop, ‘just want to get the report right, you know. There’s a lot of attention on this case. Everyone, even the Home Minister, wants to know how that old man fell off the train around midnight.’ He paused. ‘Let’s go through your account once more, shall we? How about from the moment you boarded the train yesterday?’
I went through the account again, on automatic mode, hardly listening to myself speak.
You should have asked me to start at the hotel, you fool, I thought. A week back, not yesterday. It started then. It…
I must have smirked, or flinched. The inspector looked at me. He should have asked me to share my thoughts. Maybe, I would have obliged.
I would tell you that I checked in around noon, last Friday. I was tired after the day-long onward train journey but real glad to start my annual vacation. I had a shower before going to the restaurant. At the entrance of the restaurant, on a blackboard, ‘Deal of the day – 1 bottle of beer free with burger.’ The ‘1’ was underlined. I wanted to tell the manager that the ‘free’ should be underlined instead.
I sat at a table facing the pool. I decided to have a burger and the ‘1free’ bottle of beer. If you had asked me, ‘When did it start?’ I would have told you, ‘It started with that 1free beer.’
The waiter stood near while I went through the list of burgers.
‘I will have what you will have,’ I told the waiter, a young fair man, boy really, not more than twenty.
‘Sir…?’ he said, bemused, shy.
I thought, God, did it sound like I was flirting?
I clarified to the boy, ‘Help me choose. What would you have?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Come on, which is your favourite burger in this list?’
‘I haven’t had any of those, sir.’
I felt foolish. Did I expect restaurants to feed their waiters the stuff on their menu?
I went through the list quickly and ordered, ‘Creole chicken fillet burger.’
I avoided him during my meal. I left a tip larger than required.
On my way out, I met him near the door. He wished me, ‘Wish you a wonderful stay, sir.’ He has a lovely smile. I smiled, nodded and left.
I did not return to that restaurant for the rest of my stay. But, I met him on the second evening. I was on my way to the City Centre. It must have been around six, the end of a hotel shift. He was leaving by the exit used by the service staff.
He saw me and waited.
‘How are you, sir?’ he asked.
‘Good. How have you been?’
‘Very good, sir…’
We walked together to the main road. We spoke at the same time.
‘Are you going home?’ I asked.
He asked, ‘Are you going out for dinner?’
We laughed.
‘Sir, I haven’t seen you at the restaurant. I hope you were not disappointed with the food,’ he hesitated, ‘or anything else?’
‘No, not at all,’ I replied.
‘Please feel free to ask, sir, if you need anything.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Sir, can I give you my personal number? You can call me, any time.’
He told me his number. He leaned towards me when he told me his name. I pretended that I was adding his number to the contacts list on my mobile. I thought of asking him if he was free, to have dinner with me, or just to talk. I decided not to prey on him.
The next day, Sunday, I checked out of that hotel and shifted to another. I tried not to think about that waiter-boy but that is a logical impasse. The harder I tried he took over me, replacing me in old terrors. Even news items reminded me of him. On Tuesday, the papers reported about a heavy-handed police crackdown on unlicensed spas and massage parlours. I should have been thanking my lucky stars for not getting caught in one of those police raids, instead of thinking of him.
That evening, I got involved in a fracas at a casino. I needed that distraction.
I reached the casino early, around seven. Four middle-aged men who arrived in a dark-tinted SUV were ahead of me at the counter. They wore heavy gold rings and neck chains. Open shirts displayed sick rolls of fat. They leered unabashedly at the female staff and commented lewdly. No one objected. They played at the tables with high bets. I stuck to the slot machines.
The incident happened when I was returning from the gents’. In the badly lit hallway leading to the toilets, one of those uncouth men made a pass at a lady customer. That led to a loud verbal brawl. The bouncers turned up, but before they could throw the two parties out, the lady phoned her husband, or the police. She claimed to be the wife of some big shot. She refused to let her offender slip away and threatened legal action against the casino if they allowed that. The prey and the predator had reversed their roles. He was visibly well-shaken and stirred. His flagging bravado leaned heavily on his cronies’ support. When the police turned up, the lady accused him of physical assault.
She pointed at me and told the police, ‘He saw it.’
I nodded. What I saw is a moot point; maybe, the man made an offer she could refuse. It just seemed right to nod.
That affair went on for some time at the casino; and at the police station most of the next day, till they reached a fair settlement. The lady slipped me, and probably the police too, a percentage of those earnings.
I ended my vacation the next day, Thursday, yesterday. I got to the station by noon, and while waiting for the train, which was delayed by an hour, I thought about the boy again.
Now, that could be of interest to you. You should ask me about my thoughts then; before I boarded the first-class compartment; before I met my companions in the cabin, the young mother with a child of three or four and the old couple. If you are bothered about the motive, you might want to know my thoughts before I met that old man who fell off that train around midnight.
I heard myself tell the police inspector that I do not know the names of those fellow-passengers. I told him that we never introduced ourselves and that we did not engage in idle chat, which was true. I did not tell him that I had noticed ‘Shanthi Biswas, Female, age 28’ on the chart pasted near the door and not the other names, not that that really matters.
I was the last to enter the cabin. The others had already settled down, their luggage tucked beneath the seat. The old couple and the young lady seemed to be acquaintances. I gathered that they are from the same neighbourhood. The kid was a brat, and allowed to make a racket, spit sticky sweets and scatter torn paper on the floor. I scowled at the boy and the young mother caught me doing that. I was persona non grata from then on to that group.
I was seated near the window, with the old man facing me and the ladies near the door of the cabin. The kid demanded a window seat.
‘Sit next to Appuppa (old man affectionately called grandfather),’ the mother told her boy. The way she spoke and pointed out the place next to the old man made it explicit that the kid should not go anywhere near me.
I kept myself to myself, and concentrated on the book I bought at the station, ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’. How many times have I bought that book and read it on such trips?
The old man told the boy some story. The kid was more interested in loudly counting the electric poles the train passed. The two ladies talked about their vegetable gardens, the rising cost of foodstuff, the pesticides and poisons used in the market, and by tea-time they were planning to start a women’s co-operative society. After tea, the ladies stretched their legs and napped. The boy finally tired also dozed off, leaning against the old man. The old man sat silently, looking outside. I closed the book and my eyes, but I could not sleep. The old man’s hairy left hand was around the boy’s shoulder and his right paw on the boy’s lap.
Around half past five, a middle-aged lady came to our cabin. The three ladies seemed terribly excited about their ‘surprise meeting’. The newcomer urged the other two to join her in her cabin, which had ‘only one other passenger, and more space for serious talk’.
‘Oh, I can’t leave him,’ the young mother said, pointing at her son.
‘Don’t worry, he will take care,’ the old lady said. Her husband gave a gruff assent, and indicated that they should not disturb the sleeping boy. The ladies scooted off without any further prompting.
 I returned to my book. My thoughts drifted away from the plight of Miss Blandish to the young waiter-boy at the hotel, to my earlier thoughts while waiting on the platform for the train. I wondered about his past, and my past. It can’t be different, I thought, otherwise, he wouldn’t be offering himself to men like me. I also thought about the future of the kid in front of me. I felt bile rise to my mouth. I nearly retched. I felt the chill of sweat in the air-conditioned cabin, my hand and jaw clenched tight. Some get to enjoy daydreams, my kind suffer nightmares, awake or not, repeating, never-ending, too often.  
The kid woke up at six. He was not too disturbed by the absence of his mother, and readily accepted the old man’s explanation that his mother was just next door, and that she would be back soon.
‘Now, don’t get upset over that,’ the old man cooed to the boy who seemed hardly upset. The old man lifted the boy onto his lap, his hairy arm around the boy’s waist, rocking the boy against his groin, laughing, talking some nonsense. Quite engrossed in their play, they did not even look at me.
After a while, the old man got up.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said.
The boy did not want to leave his window seat.
‘Come,’ the old man stood at the door and said sternly. The kid followed, holding the old man’s hand.
They were gone for fifteen minutes. The boy returned to his window seat and peered outside. The old man sat close to him.
‘Don’t tell your mother. She won’t like to hear that you made me take you for susu and that you took out your nunu in front of me,’ the old man whispered to the boy. ‘Let it be our secret that we susued together.’
He looked up and saw me staring. He winked at me.
The ladies came back around seven. We were served dinner at eight. By half past nine, the train staff had made the beds and the passengers settled down for the night. I offered my lower berth to the old lady. Her husband took the other lower berth. The young mother and the boy climbed onto the upper berth opposite mine. She resolutely kept her back towards me, shielding herself and her kid. I lay awake and waited.
Around eleven, I stepped out of the cabin. The passageway was dark except for light in the cabin close to the exit near my end of the compartment. I looked in. The ticket examiner occupied the otherwise empty cabin and he was going through receipts and tallying it with the list of passengers.
I knocked at the door. The ticket examiner looked up. Though he seemed taciturn, he turned out to be fine company. I told him that I wasn’t feeling sleepy. He did not mind the chit-chat. When I brought out my hipflask, he smiled. We drank slowly, silently, alert about any footfalls. He had a job to lose and me my plans. None of the passengers even got up for a leak during our drinking session, but given the chill of the air-conditioner, I expected a few to wake up during the course of the night, especially guys like the old man. My drinking partner and I shared a few pegs, even smoked near the exit door beneath the sign ‘Smoking is prohibited’. Around midnight, the ticket examiner decided to catch forty winks before the next train station at 4 am. I told him that I planned to sleep till my stop at 10 am. I went towards my cabin, waited outside for ten to fifteen minutes and then retraced my steps to the exit. On my way, I checked out the ticket examiner’s cabin. He was lying on his back, snoring beneath a blanket covering him from head to toe. I was not too worried about him. Even if he saw me, he would have assumed that I was finishing off the contents of my hipflask or having another smoke. I was quite sure he would deny seeing me, unless he wanted to lose his job by admitting to drinking and smoking with me.
I waited near the door, and watched the dark passageway. I knew that that’s all I had to do, wait; and, of course, steel myself to take a risk or two. The old man had waited that afternoon and taken risks. Someone somewhere must have waited for the young waiter when he was a lot younger, that’s the way with predators, including the one who preyed on me when I was not even ten. Around quarter to one, my wait came to an end. I saw the old man step out of the cabin. He came towards me, head down, shuffling, groggy with sleep, a hand already fumbling with the zip of his pants. I slipped into a toilet. I heard the old man enter the other toilet. I stepped out, opened wide the exit door of the compartment. The night air was fresh, the biting wind refreshing, the area dark and uninhabited, and on either side, the compartments were dark, the train a large black snake slithering forward.
The old man came out of the toilet. He was surprised to see me at the door.
‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you sleeping?’ sounding very much the affectionate old man he wasn’t.
‘Looking at the moon,’ I said, ‘it’s lovely.’
‘Really…?’ he made a move to get past me to the inside.
‘Take a look,’ I said, beckoning him to the open door, blocking the way inside. He obliged, shuffled to the door and leaned a little to the outside.
‘What moon?’ he asked.
‘New moon,’ I said. Then, it sounded like a good joke.
All I had to do was push his back.
I left the exit door open and went back to the cabin. The ladies and the kid were sleeping. I climbed onto my berth and slept soundly.
At six or so, the old lady woke up to find her husband missing.
The old lady told the police inspector, between loud sobs and fainting bouts, that she had not heard her husband, or anyone, get up. She mentioned that her husband had the habit of relieving himself once or twice during the night. But she had not heard him, she kept on repeating, crying. She protested loudly when the inspector asked her if her husband had had any reason to commit suicide.
The inspector did not interview us separately when he was gathering the initial statements. In fact, he seemed to be in a rush to get it stamped as a suicide. I told him that I had used the toilet around midnight, and that I had seen only the ticket examiner. I chose to be vague about the time. The ticket examiner confirmed that he had seen me going to the toilet, adding that he had been going through the receipts then. The ticket examiner placed me there well before midnight.
The young mother told the policeman that she had seen me go out of the cabin around eleven. I wondered how she had managed to see me with her facing the other way. She seemed disappointed when unable to add anything to her account that could inconvenience me.
No one had noticed the old man during the night, in the cabin or near the toilet.
The police did not question the boy. Whatever his experience with the old man remained a secret.
Even later, at the station, I kept my account to the bare minimum. I told the inspector that I sat near the window most of the day, read a book, had tea and dinner when served, used the toilet before midnight and that was that.
It was probably the smell of liquor on my breath, or on the ticket examiner, that made the inspector probe more. That must have made him wonder why I had left that out from my account. If pushed, I was ready to admit the drinking session with the ticket examiner, though the poor chap might lose his job. Maybe, it was not my bad breath that made the inspector focus his attention on me. He had looked at my book and exclaimed, ‘Oh! James Hadley Chase!’ It is possible he thinks that a guy who reads Chase cannot be totally legit. Not that I really care about his suspicions.
‘So, did you see the old man before or after you used the toilet around midnight?’ I heard him ask, trying the fifth or sixth variation.
I smiled and replied, ‘I did not see him, sir.’
The inspector was beginning to lose patience, never a good sign if you are a predator after a prey.