The sound came out of nowhere. One shrill blast that shattered the mid-morning quiet and made me jump. Literally. I swore as the lilac paint I had finalized after hours of deliberation, splattered across the canvas with a jerk of my hand, ruining the single hydrangea drooping on the surface of the canvas, colorless and lifeless.
I threw the brush down and stomped my feet in frustration even though it was nothing but a childish tantrum, and found to my chagrin that it actually made me feel a less livid. The brush lay on the ground, desolate, a streak of lilac joining the multitude of other colours already adorning the floor. I gazed at the psychedelic display and was ashamed to find that the floor was closer in resemblance to an artwork than the array of half-finished and blank canvases that lay in a heap along the studio walls. The exhibition was less than a month away and I had yet to finish a single painting instead of the dozen that were expected. I had decided to paint the various flowers from my beautiful garden, the envy of the neighborhood, thanks to my gardener.
Another loud insistent toot of the horn echoed through the studio walls once more. Whoever it was surely knew the meaning of persistence. I gathered the paint-splattered house-coat in which I preferred to paint, close around me, and popped my head out of the studio window. I just needed to ensure I was not inadvertently the cause of the commotion. I could be a bit absent-minded sometimes like the time I accidentally set my ex-boyfriend's house on fire, or the time I was unceremoniously bundled off from a hotel for flooding the room and the lobby. Of course that was done on a dare and I didn't expect the hotel staff to evict me. The manager had turned an exquisite shade of coral on being told it was all a game. Though when I told him his face colour was patent- worthy, he had turned into a vomit- inducing beetroot red. Some people have no sense of humour. Since that unfortunate incident I have tried to capture that particular shade of coral in my paintings but to no avail.
A loud scream greeted me as soon as I popped my head out. A sedan was parked in the street, one that I was unfamiliar with. A man, late thirty-ish, decent looking with a mop of brown hair falling over his eyes, was at the wheel. A smartly dressed woman, now all disheveled with her dress crumpled and hair falling over her face, sat in the back, looking distraught and trying her best to calm a child who was clinging to her and screaming as if she was not in a quiet street, but at a rock concert. It was impossible to guess the sex of the child as it had close cropped hair, wore a simple shirt over dungarees and had its face buried in her mother’s shoulders and her hands in her hair. A breakdown seemed imminent, so I rushed out with a bottle of water that I always kept in my studio.
As I ran to the car, both the adults in the car turned and gaped at me, eyes almost as wide as their open mouths, the screaming kid forgotten. Their faces went through a gamut of emotions but I was more interested in the display of colours on their faces in the few seconds it took for me to reach them. Somehow it reminded me of that hotel manager and that elusive coral shade, even though this parade of shades was much more commanding in its diversity.
“Are you mad?”
The woman hissed admonition was rude as well as inappropriate. I was only trying to be neighborly. The child had meanwhile redoubled its efforts at giving competition to the legendary sirens of Greek myth.
I arched a well plucked eyebrow at her. I consider it a language all its own and it can work wonders, well past the results achieved through verbal means.
“First you scare my child half to death, popping out of that window with your face-mask on, like a malicious jack-in-the-box, and then you run out half-naked giving me husband palpitations and a possible heart attack. Just take a look at him trying to get his galloping heart beats under control. Forgot your pills today, did you? Is that why you have parked your car in the middle of the road?” She sneered.
I stood there struck. Of course, I had forgotten that I had put a mask on my face while deliberating between the lilac and the mauve, in an attempt to cool my frayed nerves, frazzled with all the decision making. And distracted with the screaming child, I had forgotten to tie up my house-coat before running out of the door. The display rivaled the fourth of July fireworks in explosiveness, without any doubt. No wonder the man was almost catatonic and the woman apoplectic.
With a view towards damage control, I clutched the flapping panels of fabric with one hand and with the other, I reached for my face. I don’t know what I was thinking. The pack was hardly going to disappear with frantic patting. As fingers connected with my temple, I managed to cosh myself with the bottle in my hand. And in a classic case of insult being added to injury, it turned out not to be a bottle of water, but wine, a drink I had developed an affinity for in the recent months.
I could hear the high-pitched hysterical laughter behind me as I chose to retreat with the remains of my dignity.
"I warned you. No home can come this cheap. This woman is certifiable. She is going to be our neighbor! And she didn't even move her car!! How will we move in?"
The unfortunate misunderstanding was resolved later with the intervention of the police, the present gardener, and the ex-boyfriend, who didn't mind putting out fires for me, including the one I set in his house.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, in complete disregard of my state of mind. I had spent the night gathering the shreds of my shattered pride and rueing my absent-mindedness. I had tried my best to change and be more responsible, disciplined, and in general not be a menace to society. But whatever I tried backfired. Sometimes, it felt as if I was a character in a novel, solely put there to provide some entertainment for the readers, with no regard towards my feelings.
Anyway, today I was determined to devote my entire attention, time, and energy towards my paintings. Consequently, I moved to my studio and started work. With the lilac, which I had finalized the day before. Work went well. Soon half a hydrangea, with varying hues of lilac petals was there on the canvas. I decided to take a break before introducing the mauve, and poured myself a glass of wine. Standing at the studio window, surveying the peaceful street was a favourite pastime. Helped to germinate ideas in the fogged brain. If nothing else, it would help me in proceeding with the violets.
The car from yesterday stood in the overgrown yard of the house across the street. It had been empty for a long time and I had been real good friends with the couple who had stayed there earlier. What happened to them was a real pity.
The new occupants had finished arranging the furniture and the woman was putting up curtains in the upstairs window. She looked at me and scrunched her face in disdain. My hopes of a new friend died with her withering look. I had been looking forward to people moving across, with wonderful plans for family dinners and beach outings. I turned to refill my glass feeling guilty at a second glass so early in the morning but grief at the demise of my dreams trumped the guilt, jaded with overuse.
As I turned back, I saw the woman pick up a long and sturdy stick with a swiftness true to her frail frame and run after something. Oh my God! This woman was going to beat something, probably her child. The main door opened with a bang and the child sprinted out screaming, followed by the woman, who came out brandishing a curtain rod. As soon as she saw I was watching, she went back inside but not before I heard her warning.
"I will kill you when I catch you."
The boy, whose hair was long and curly enough to give any salon perm a complex, was soon lost among the overgrown shrubbery. Probably scared to go inside because of his murderous mother. Maybe the mother had been the reason the child had been crying yesterday. What if the couple had to leave their earlier place of residence because of their abusive behavior? The situation needed watching. I was not one to let a child suffer on my watch.
Setting up a tripod and a camera in my studio window to be able to spy on the new neighbors was the work of moments. I was used to spending time in my studio already. I moved my microwave there and ordered a stack of pizza to assuage the inevitable pangs of hunger. My bottle of wine was my trusted companion in my vigil. By the time I had finished my bottle, it was afternoon. However, I was yet to notice any suspicious activity. I must have dozed off after the scrumptious lunch of pizza, the three glasses of deliciously soothing wine and the total lack of excitement.
"Darling, I'm back!!"
The cheerful greeting of the husband pulled me out of my slumber. He was there honking his car horn and announcing his arrival at the top of his voice for the world to hear. Sheesh! The car careened to a stop and he hopped out to take the grocery in. A black box with the universal sign of a red cross caught my eye and I zoomed in to find he had brought in boxes of rat poison by the carton! Were these people trying to kill their own son?
I paced the multi-hued floor of my studio in agitation. I had to do something. The monsters across the road had to be stopped. I needed to think straight. I required something to calm me. The unopened bottle of red wine in the refrigerator beckoned me like a beacon. I soon had a glass in my hand. Sprawled on the faded floral settee, I contemplated what I should do.
Paint, said the mind.
Investigate, said the heart.
Who should I listen to?
I downed the wine, and poured myself another glass. Was I a bit tipsy? Should I sleep things off and decide on the morrow?
I wondered why I had drunk so much wine throughout the day. I had never been one for spirits, not at all like the guzzler I had been. It felt as if someone else was dictating my actions and my reactions.
My thoughts again turned to the pressing matter at hand. What if they killed the boy during the night? What if they were keeping him a prisoner? I had not seen him after the morning episode, not even upstairs. In a flash, the solution came to me. I would help the boy escape and keep him with me for the night. In the morning I would convey my suspicions to the police. They would make sure he was shifted somewhere safe.
I made my preparations. A black velour jumpsuit that had been relegated to the back of the closet was dug out. It would provide me cover in the night and also make me look the part, because as everyone knows, appearances are important. A pair of rubber soled high heeled wedges I wouldn't be seen dead in the light of day, completed my outfit. I ran a luxurious bath where I soaked for hours. The soothing aroma from the two dozen candles I lit calmed my jittery nerves. Later I curled my hair in blonde ringlets that fell just on my shoulders. I did not want to feel any insecurity from the perfect curls of the boy I was going to rescue. A spray of perfume and a dash of my favorite Wild Red lipstick and I felt confident enough to kidnap even the President.
The sun went down in a glorious show of scarlets, tangerines, purples and violets, reminding me of the work that I had forgotten as one forgets an unreturned loan. Wracked with guilt, I again poured myself a glass of wine. Soon, it was past dinner in the house opposite and time to put my plan into action.
I crossed the street in a few quick strides and entered the garden. The shrubbery was quite overgrown here. Strange movements combined with unfamiliar sounds put my nerves on edge. I reached the front door and was happily surprised to find it open. I stole in, my wedges making no sounds. I knew which way the stairs were and proceeded. As I put one foot on the stairs, I found myself looking into a pair of eyes; small,yellow, and beady. I smothered a scream and scuffled back. In my haste I tumbled and fell flat on my ample backside.
Sense flowed into me along with the pain. What was I doing? I was inside a stranger's house, upon my backside, in the dark, planning to kidnap their kid. It even boggled my mind to consider how many laws I was breaking. How had I arrived at this situation? I mean I was a bit absent-minded sometimes but I wasn't a petty criminal, even though I was dressed for the part. Why was it that my decision making capacity had been convoluted to such a degree? I had no proof in support of the fact that the couple was abusive towards their child other than an overactive imagination.
Was someone else trying to decide my actions for me? To make my irresponsible behavior a medium of entertainment? Was my excessive drinking a trope to justify my actions? Were my flights of fancy just a way to take a story forward? Was I a character in a story, the strings of my fate at the mercy of the author? Well, I was not one to surrender my fate to someone else. I had agency and I was going to use it.
I got up with difficulty, the jumpsuit and the wedge trying their best to thwart my attempts, and retreated with my bruised body and pride to the sanctuary of my own home. It was not easy to do so quietly as the place seemed overrun with rodents, most of them giving stiff competition in size to their feline foes. I poured a glass of wine, with the promise that this would be my last and went to sleep, without any kidnapped kids in tow and a clean conscience for once.
The morning dawned bright and clear, just like my mood. I relocated the microwave, got rid of the wine, and completed the painting of the hydrangeas before lunch. I had just finalized the shade of green for leaves and was putting the brush to the canvas when the bell rang. The woman from across the street stood at the steps with a casserole in hand.
"Hi. We just moved into the house opposite you. I'm sorry for the other day. Please consider this casserole as an apology from my side. I'm Ruth by the way. I'm a novelist. I can see you are an artist. You will have to show me all your paintings and I will base one of my characters on you someday."
I graciously accepted the casserole. Looked like my dreams might come true after all.
“Can’t wait to be friends. Though, to be honest some blame lies with me too for the other day. I can be a bit absent-minded sometimes.” I told her, my face red with embarrassment.
"Oh, that would be some story to tell our children someday. Speaking of being absent-minded, have you not been troubled by rats in your yard and house? Ours is overrun with them. They seem to be everywhere. We brought in rat poison by truckloads and managed to kill a dozen but it seems to be an army out there. The house should be named Hamlin and we should advertise for a piper," she grinned. "To think my son wants to have one for a pet. Just yesterday I chased him and his proposed pet out of the house with a curtain rod. I almost felt like a gladiator for a moment there."
"Can't say I have. Everything like that is taken care of by my gardener. He has been here from even before I rented the property. I will give you his number and send him over. Around here all the killing is done by him."
"Sure. Take care. Bye." With that she went back.
I went in, anticipating a delicious lunch of the casserole. The future looked bright. The neighbors seemed friendly and eager for friendship. The visions of family dinners and beach visits rose in front of me once again. I would love spending time with them. Until I got tired of them. Then it would be time for new neighbors.
Photo credit: Scott Webb on Pexel.com