Author : Sony Mathew
Company : Allianz
Email : Sony.Mathew@allianzcornhill.co.in
The falling of any great tree is rarely sans any tales. There will be the usual nostalgic reminisces of the hours spent under its soothing shade , the secret deals made as children on its emancipating branches, the furtive kisses stolen by young couples hidden in its dense foliage and the legendary sweetness of the fruits it bore. The death of a person or even the proximity of this inevitable universal truth triggers a similar sort of reaction among the kin of the dead/dying. Similar tales were being exchanged in the Sinclair household as its grand old man Jamie Sinclair patiently awaited the arrival of the grim reaper on Christmas Eve.
Jacob, Jamie’s grandson looked around the room and realized he only knew a handful of the people in the room. There were his cousins Thom and Lilly, their families and there was old Uncle Sam. Thom still seemed to be the same tongue tied lad he had known years ago and Lilly still seemed to retain the fiery spirit on the receiving end of which he often had been. Uncle Sam though seemed to have changed. He was looking more old and weary than Jacob could ever remember and understandably so, as his grandfather and Sam had been through thick and thin for as long as one could remember. Silence certainly did not suit Uncle Sam who was infamous long yarns. Uncle Sam was a piece of work one would never forget and was often jokingly referred to as the ‘Black Mamba’ .The name had little to do with his demeanour but was rather a courtesy of his wide grin which invited the gaze of the onlooker directly to the blackened rows of rotten stumps of what were once teeth.
There were a few others he was sure he had met before and he tried hard to remember their names before they came over and said hello. But the other of the old man’s kin, he had no memories. “A bane of living away from one’s root, I suppose. Maybe we should have issued invitation cards to the grand event…” he thought morbidly. If his mother Dalia had been alive she would definitely have known more people, but death seldom does wait enough to renew acquaintances. He looked around for his lovely daughter Claire who used to be the old man’s pet and caught her deep in conversation with her Aunt Lilly. She seemed to be enjoying the break away from her mom and Jacob really could not blame her for that. Alice, her mother, had a penchant for strictness which almost borderline obsessive. Maybe it was probably required being the headmistress of one of the most prestigious schools back home, but he found himself yearning time and again for her to be a little more accessible emotionally. Alice was of the opinion that her being near her grandfather-in-law’s death bed would not make any difference in nature’s decree but her presiding over her school’s annual day certainly would. “Call me when the funeral date is fixed and take Claire with you”, had been her cold reply when he had disclosed his plans for being beside his grandfather in his last hours.
Jacob could hear Claire over the hush whisperings of other guests. “Why do you think he used to buy all those cakes on all Fools day …There are no birthdays in this family on that day that I know of. A failed romance . . .?”. The teenager’s interest in anything remotely associated with romance was almost tangible, Jacob thought. “Claire dear, please could you lower your voice. Your great granddad is not dead yet and a failed romance is hardly reason for celebration, wouldn’t you think?” Jacob rebuked her gently. “And for your information, as far as I know the old man’s romance started and ended with Mary, your late great grandmother”. “Don’t be so harsh Jacob”, Lilly snapped,” the child did not ask anything wrong. After all, we ourselves have asked this question one time or another. You yourself have been guilty of this offence many times over. Not only did he send cakes to all of us that one day of the year, but also to all orphanages and old homes in the vicinity. I know it was a magnanimous gesture but don’t you find it strange that he never bothered to explain why. If I didn’t know him so well I would have almost thought he was ashamed of the act. Maybe Uncle Sam would know….let us ask him”. Though Jacob found Lilly’s proposition of rummaging through the privacy of the dying man a little obscene, he kept his thoughts to himself. Even the perpetually shy Thom seemed to agree with Lilly on this and that is how Jamie’s next of kin found themselves listening to Uncle Sam about the story of how a thousand cakes happened to bring joy to the needy every day of a year during the old man’s lifetime. But like all old men Uncle Sam took his own sweet time to warm up.
“Jamie and I go a long way back. He was so full of life and vitality that I cannot bear to see him like this .Well I guess we all have to call it a day some time or other. Wait for me my old friend on the other side and we will once again give the devil more than he had bargained for…” Uncle Sam paused as if to catch his breath and then as if he realized the purpose for which he had begun, continued. “More than friends we were accomplices. Oh the pranks we played and the girls we chased….We used to be each other’s wing man. So say when I fancied a girl, Jamie would do me the honour of introducing us and play the middle man without making me look bad. I had to reciprocate but once and that girl was Mary, your grandmother Jacob. Yes, Claire – we didn’t have mobile phones or even landlines back then and don’t you look at me like that. Well, whatever…it was college excursion time and we planned a train trip for four days. The greatest challenge we faced was convincing the teachers and parents to let the girls travel. It took some time and loads of patience but we could be very persuasive gentlemen when we chose to be. Especially so when it was a question of having the golden opportunity of flirting with the girls unchallenged for four days and for Jamie it was all about spending some quality time with your grandmother. Finally after much deliberation the green flag for the train trip was shown by all concerned. We had booked an entire coach and it just so mysteriously happened that the teachers were put up in the accompanying coach. Some sort of mix-up I dare say, but who dares question providence. And so a bunch of excited boys and giggling girls started on the journey.
I would be lying to say that nothing untoward or un-gentlemanly happened on the train journey. Suffice it is to say that we had a grand time, whetting our voyeuristic appetites and for those who dared to cross boundaries and break taboos the rewards were more exciting, if you know what I mean…But what we all are now are more concerned is about the cake. By the return journey most of us were paired into couples much to the exasperation of the teachers. For the unfortunate few who did not touch base, due to fate or the law of odd numbers, I am sure it must have been pure agony. For the remaining though it was sheer ecstasy. If we could, we would have extended the trip to eternity but unfortunately the earth does not spin on our whims. So the return trip began on all fool’s day…
Jamie and Mary by now were inseparable, and I must confess I was beginning to miss my wingman sorely. They had made the last berth near the door their love nest and Jamie had a habit of locking the coach door .This ensured that no one else entered the coach by mistake or otherwise, at least from their end. I do not remember which station it was, but as soon as the train started to leave it, we could hear loud banging on the locked door. Some poor soul was trying to enter the coach and was hanging on. Now this was not the first time this had happened and usually the person banging the door would wise up and let go before the train gathered greater momentum. But this did not happen that day. I could hear Jamie shouting through the window that the coach was reserved and off-limits, but the banging only increased .I guess this angered your grandfather a bit and maybe that’s why he stopped anyone else from opening the door as well…this continued until we heard a dull thud followed by a long scream. The train had not yet left the platform and then there were more screams… this time from the onlookers”, Uncle Sam paused in his narration, took a long look around at our eager faces and announced he needed to use the loo. There were voices of protest but he hushed them down.
Uncle Sam returned to a group debating fiercely on what happened next.” Hush, you would not want to disturb Jamie, would you?”, he growled and then went back to the narration.
“Where were we…oh yes, the screams. Somebody had pulled the chain by then. The train was rolling to a halt. I was the first to grab the door handle and jump out onto the platform. Jamie was just behind me. We ran some coaches back to the crowd of onlookers. Oh…it was total chaos. There were some who had fainted and I do not blame them… For there between the coach and the platform, a man sat on the track with his arms supporting his upper torso just as you or I would sit casually on the floor. One look at this guy and I immediately knew he was a goner. He had a blank stare and seemed totally oblivious to what had just happened. Obviously he was in shock and was slight foam at the corners of his mouth. I asked Jamie to help me pull him up, but your grandfather seemed to be in a state of shock himself. So with the help of a couple of others I pulled the poor soul up and that was when we realized that his legs were missing. Blood, so much blood.. How can there be so much blood in a single human being. I do not know what gave me the courage to jump onto the tracks and search beneath the coach for the missing legs. The same something must have given me the strength to lift the bloodied appendages and toss them onto the platform. I also remember lifting something else in a polythene bag from the track and throwing it onto Jamie’s feet, who still was behaving like a zombie. I do not remember who took the poor guy to the hospital or what happened soon after but I remember throwing up again and again till my stomach was empty and all that was left to be spewed was dark bile”. Uncle Sam took a deep breather before continuing and one could easily discern the disturbance in the old man’s voice in trying to remember what he and his friend had buried long ago. “You could safely say that no one else laughed on the remainder of the trip. My nerves seemed to be bunch of raw endings and I needed some time alone. After calming down enough, I went to check on Jamie and could see him still in a trance with a vacant expression with Mary trying to console him. I shook him hard, and I think I might have slapped him once or twice .Whatever it was it seemed to bring him back to earth with a jolt. It was then that I noticed that he was still clutching the polythene bag that I had thrown at his feet. He slowly put his hand inside the bag and pulled out a crumpled plum cake carton. A tattered label still clung to the carton but we could make out the words ‘Happy Birthday Dalia’. Yes Jacob, that was the name Jamie later chose to give to his only daughter and your mother. We came to know from the newspapers the next day that an unfortunate soul had met with a train accident and had died on the way to the hospital. The deceased was a vicar in charge of some orphanages and old homes. So I guess either a little girl or an old woman by the name of Dalia never did get her birthday cake that day.”
Uncle Sam looked intently at our silent faces. No one spoke for a long time. “I guess then everybody is clear on why Jamie was so obsessed with sending cakes out to all orphanages and old homes he could think of and why he never talked much about it. We all do stupid things one time or another and learn to live with the consequences. Anyway after that fateful day, I think we all matured a lot quickly. I am pretty sure that most of my hair had turned grey by the end of that semester.” “Is that why your teeth all rotted away too, Uncle Sam?” Claire asked innocently. Uncle Sam looked at her intently and replied, “In a way yes child. You see that day in the train, it being the last day of the trip, none of us had a soap remaining to wash my bloodied hands. And I had to wash them. So I used the next best thing I could find to wash my hands off the blood: toothpaste. Not a very wise decision in the hindsight, because after that I could never brush with paste as it would bring back the repugnant smell of blood and I would inevitably throw up.” With that Uncle Sam got up, looked at his watch and announced, ”Merry Xmas all of you children and to you Jamie. Travel well my friend & keep the cakes flowing children” and slowly walked off.
The remainder of the grim vigil was very silent with even Claire keeping her mouth. Jamie Sinclair passed away peacefully on Christmas morning which is celebrated all over the world with countless cakes.