As usual, she had her beautiful smile on when she opened the door and she greeted him with her daily question, addressing him, as she always did, with his last name “How you are doing today, Carton?” He greeted her back – never ever answering the question, asked her after her husband and went to meet her children. The children were waiting for him to arrive as he was their playmate and played the game with the same excitement as they did – only losing deliberately to his younger rivals. “You will never learn Carton” the young girl would say with a shake of the head and using his last name much like her mother. “You just wait and watch, I will surely beat you two tomorrow.” He would say pretending to take the challenge.
Soon they all took their dinner and then it was time to put the children in their bed. As per ritual, he told them a bedtime story – a new one every day as their parents would watch and once the children were asleep, he would bow to the parents to take their leave. Today something of a smile in her eyes as he took their leave, brought the grief back in the form of that long familiar heaviness in his throat. He could barely suppress this sudden urge to weep only as long as he was in their sight – but as soon as Lucy closed the door behind him, he broke down, fell to his knees and started crying. Lucy and her husband who happened to be standing by the window of their room watching him leave as they sometimes did, noticed him losing himself like that and Lucy called for him to come back. He was shocked to hear her voice and realizing she had seen like that. Without turning back he replied that he was alright. But she pleaded in that soft voice of hers which make one submit all one’s life to her wishes. And her husband had already run down and opened the door.
He knew what will happen next. His love for her was no secret in the family and even the kids knew it. And they all knew how he preferred nursing his grief in solitude and only came there when he could smile for them. Yet sometimes his heart would find its way to scream when he hadn’t yet managed to get himself out of eyeshot and in such cases she won’t let him leave until his usual …. Not exactly cheerful, but nevertheless the smiling look that normally adorned his face. And through experiments, she had discovered the surest way to bring it back.
Though he was apologetic for being such a nuisance, he knew he had to go through the usual ceremony now that Lucy knew how she was feeling. Quite often in these times, he would wish to ask her about himself – who am I? Who am I to you? as if his whole existence was defined by the position she gave him in his world. But showing great self-control, he won’t ask that question, in fact, often didn’t say a lot in such times, knowing all he would have said in those times would be reproaches for a woman he should be and was ever so grateful to – for the dream.
Without being asked, he took the seat by the fireplace and took the usual three cigarettes (for some reason, they always had to be three) offered by the husband on Lucy’s suggestion who herself went to the piano and started playing and singing the song. It was always the same song. And he would listen to it, watching the fire as it seemed to carry a secret communication with him and smoking his grief away to the charms of her beautiful voice. And it always worked, she offered very little as consolation that he must have instead of her – three cigarettes and a song, but it was enough, always enough. By the time he put off the last cigarette and took his leave assuring them he felt better now, his face was illuminated with that same old tired smile.